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COVID-19 & Influenza: 'They’re indistinguishable at this point'

Posted at 5:14 PM, Oct 08, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY — With flu season fast-approaching, medical professionals are drawing stark contrast between the symptoms of the Coronavirus and Influenza.

A recent study in Japan showed that SARS-CoV-2 (Coronavirus 2) could stay active on human skin for nearly nine hours. IAV (Influenza A) survived nearly 2 hours on human skin. Both could be deactivated by hand sanitizer within 15 seconds.

In Utah, doctors are concerned for the upcoming flu season, citing a record-increase of positive COVID-19 cases on Thursday.

“Influenza travels on droplet particles just like SARS-CoV-2 you know the virus that causes COVID-19 and so the same exact principles apply,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician with Intermountain Healthcare. “They’re indistinguishable at this point we don’t have the ability just based on history and a patient’s symptoms and physical exam to be able to distinguish between COVID-19 and influenza.”

Dr. Stenehjem recognized the complicating scenario that lies ahead for medical professionals which two virus’ that have striking similarities.

“(Influenza) It’s fever with a respiratory component that’s it so it could be fever and a cough, fever and shortness of breath, that’s COVID-19,” said Dr. Stenehjem, when asked by Fox13 about the symptoms of both COVID-19 and the seasonal flu strains. “The overlap of these two virus’ is going to make it really hard to difference these and the reason that’s so important is that we have pretty good therapeutics for influenza.”

Not only did St. Stenehjem stress how important it is to diagnose each virus correctly to provide the necessary treatment, he also noted that you can contract COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.

“Don’t forget about influenza not everything is COVID-19 as we move into this season of flu,” said Dr. Stenehjem, recalling conversations with fellow medical professionals.

Fox13 also raised the question about testing for both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. Dr. Stenehjem says that tests for both are being developed and they may be accessible for specific urgent care locations within Intermountain but they are not readily available for most people. You cannot get a flu test at any COVID-19 drive-thru locations.

“October’s a great month to go out and get your flu shot and just get it done because it’s going to help us out by reducing severe influenza which comes into our hospitals,” said Dr. Stenehjem, concerned with the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases as we approach flu season. According to Utah Department of Health, nearly 1,300 influenza cases required hospitalization in the 2019-2020 season.

“Severe influenza is what ends up in our facilities and in our hospitals if this trend continues we’re going to need all of those beds for COVID-19 patients,” said Dr. Stenehjem, who stressed that October is not too early to get a flu vaccine.

Click here to learn more about influenza and prevention.