Medical professionals are urging folks not to skip their flu shot this year.

Even though the South Dakota Department of Health is too swamped with COVID-19 response to help with annual Flu Shot Point of Distributions, Davison County Commissioner Randy Reider received emphatic feedback to find a way to persist with the POD this year.

Typically, the Department of Health has county nurses assist with the distribution and coordination of the vaccine, but COVID-19 is forcing the POD events to be run by volunteers.

As the virus continues spreading throughout the state, medical professionals are putting a greater emphasis on the vaccine as the flu and cold season approaches. It also serves as a simulation in the event that a mass vaccine is needed.

The Mitchell Area Flu POD is held from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 13 at the Corn Palace, with the state expected to supply 500 adult doses and 750 doses for kids 6 months to 18 years old.

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“It’s been mostly volunteer anyway — and (Department of Health nurses) can volunteer, it just has to be in their off-time,” said Reider, who is the POD manager and a registered nurse. “They are volunteering for us, which is very important, because they have the set-up expertise that we need to make this go.”

The SDDOH typically sends five to six county health nurses from Davison County and neighboring Hanson and Aurora counties, which help with coordinating the event, keeping tabs on supplies and storage. The SDDOH has also held mini clinics at area schools in the past in the event of an excess in vaccines following the POD.

In an email to the Mitchell Republic, the SDDOH said, “Statewide, our staff are focused on COVID-19 response efforts. As a result, we do not have DOH staff available to assist with the flu vaccination POD events as we have in the past. Historically, the Department’s role has been to assist with the coordination and facilitation of obtaining supplies and vaccines distributed to the POD locations, but we have relied heavily on community resources and local professionals to support and staff the vaccination events. We continue to reach out to our health systems and other community partners to encourage their participation in these events to ensure adequate staffing is available.”

Reider is hoping to have some of those nurses volunteer their time, but otherwise it will be run by local nurses and physicians. Nurses from local clinics and practices, as well as those who live in the area have often volunteered to administer vaccines, as have nursing students and their instructors at Dakota Wesleyan University.

Nurses and physicians from Avera Health, including emergency physician Hilary Rockwell, have also committed to volunteering for the POD, which has also taken some planning precautions this year. Those seeking a vaccination are asked to register prior to the POD, with forms available on the Davison County Community Nurse website, while face masks will be mandatory.

“It’s a couple of meetings to prepare and show up on the day to help and now we have to ask for additional help,” Reider said. “Mitchell is a great place to ask for volunteer help. You look at the service clubs and you look at folks around town, volunteerism is a big deal and it makes our community a great place to live.”

The POD will provide a free flu vaccination to kids from 6 months to 18 years old, as the American Association of Pediatrics is recommending anyone within the age range receive the vaccination prior to the end of October.

Flu season is typically in its infancy in September and October, before picking up from November through February. Initially PODs were open to people of all ages, but the DOH changed to target younger people because not only does the flu typically have a greater impact, but they frequently spend more time in higher areas of spread.

“Compared to COVID, flu can affect younger people more,” Rockwell said. “They are in the higher spread zone — school, day care. Those are the areas the flu is spread pretty easily and quickly. The hope is that if we get our young people vaccinated, there is going to be less incidents of flu and less spread. … Generally we encourage the older population to get into their physician or pharmacy, as well.”

Symptom similarities create concern

Medical professionals frequently encourage flu shots during this time of year, but with COVID-19 also circulating, it has created more urgency.

Rockwell says there were a limited number of coinfections with the flu and COVID-19, but with both in the air — along with the common cold — it could create a number of issues within the medical system as well as for families in health and finances.

Fever, chills, sore throat, body aches, cough and fatigue are symptoms of the flu and COVID-19. Loss of smell and taste tends to be a telltale sign of COVID-19, but it is not present in all cases.

The similarity in symptoms expects to be a challenge to diagnose on sight for doctors and individuals, which highlights the importance of getting the flu shot, which reduced cases by 45 percent last year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Unfortunately they have a very similar symptom profile,” Rockwell said. “I don’t know that there’s any way to look at you — for me as a doctor or you as a citizen — and say yes or no. It’s going to depend on testing. Either one, honestly, is going to depend on staying away from people, washing hands, wearing masks — all of the measures that we’ve been talking about now for months.”

Rockwell anticipates the presence of both illnesses and their similarities in symptoms leading to a greater need for COVID-19 testing this fall and winter, which could create shortages.

In the early stages of the pandemic, testing was limited, so there was a tiered system that prioritized symptomatic patients and health care workers. Testing has since expanded, but as flu season revs up and tests once again run short, Rockwell sees a possibility to return to the tiered system and potentially even reaching a point when people with symptoms may have to be assumed positive and self-isolate.

“For the past few months we’ve been testing symptomatic people and even asymptomatic exposures,” Rockwell said. “Now, as testing goes up — because it definitely will with flu season, school in session and everything else — there may be some limitation in testing supplies. We’re already seeing that there are going to be some shortages. It’s going to be a constantly changing situation.”