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COVID-19 vs. the flu: What's the difference and how to protect yourself

Even in the pandemic, doctors still recommend that everyone get your flu shot this year and get it early.

AUSTIN, Texas — The flu season is fast-approaching, and it's coming at an interesting time. Because the coronavirus pandemic is in full swing, there are some things you should know about symptoms and how to protect yourself.

According to USA Today, for the first time, both Walgreens and CVS pharmacies will check temperatures and ask about COVID-19 symptoms. They will also wear shields when delivering the vaccine, and they're encouraging, not requiring, people to set up an appointment ahead of time and fill out the paperwork online to avoid getting people gathered together. 

Even in the pandemic, doctors still recommend that everyone get their flu shot this year and get it early. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people get their flu shot by early October. "Getting vaccinated later, however, can still be beneficial and vaccination should continue to be offered throughout the flu season, even into January or later," the CDC said.

Dr. Ryan McCorkle, an emergency medicine physician at St. David's Medical Center, joined KVUE Daybreak on Aug. 20 to talk about the symptoms and what to look out for.

He said there is a lot of overlap in the flu symptoms and the COVID-19 symptoms.

"Patients with fever, cough, shortness of breath, body aches, runny nose," he said. "So it's going to be difficult for most people to tell the difference at home. That's a good reason to come and see us in the emergency department. We have testing for both the flu and for COVID-19 so that we can differentiate when disease process is going on that's causing those symptoms because they are so similar."

WATCH: Flu and COVID-19: The importance of getting a flu shot 

Some may be wondering which is more contagious, the flu or COVID-19?

"They're both contagious. We're seeing more of COVID-19 in specific populations," McCorkle said. "The CDC has gathered data that shows that it can spread rapidly among populations, people that are gathered together more so than the flu. They're both droplet-born infections that spread that way. But both are highly contagious. And people will get extremely sick from both. We have lots of deaths from the flu every year. Obviously, we talk a lot about the deaths from COVID-19, and we're preparing for both in the emergency department."

A lot of experts say because of the pandemic is even more important to get the flu shot this year. Why is that?

"Well, we haven't seen what it's going to look like in a large group of patients who have a coinfection," the doctor said. "If you have both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, you know, we haven't seen that enough to know how the body's going to react. Is it going to be overwhelming for those people who get both? So we don't yet have a vaccine for COVID-19, but we have a flu vaccine. So it's of paramount importance that we get people vaccinated, so that we reduce that number of people that are coinfected. It's also a good trial run for how we're going to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available. We're going to do better than the 45 to 50% of people who we get vaccinated for the flu every year when it comes time to get that COVID-19 vaccine."

Currently, there are mask orders in place and social distancing measures in place. Will these safety measures cut down on flu cases?

"I think if you ask most emergency department doctors, we'd say we wish we had been doing that during the flu season for years and years because it is a droplet borne disease," McCorkle said. "It will definitely decrease the transmission of the flu the way it does with COVID-19. So those are all good things."

Every year, misinformation spreads about the flu vaccine. Many do not want to get the flu shot because they believe the flu shot will give you the flu. The doctor who spoke with KVUE said "the flu shot absolutely does not cause the flu."

"So people can get minor flu-like symptoms as their body ramps up that immune response to form the antibodies to fight the flu," he said. "So you can have flu-like symptoms for 24 or 48 hours, but it's much less severe than the actual flu. And the flu shot does not cause the flu. We really want to get that message out there so we can get people vaccinated this year when it's so important."

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