WASHINGTON (KTVI) — The pandemic could delay your tax refund. Even so, the IRS announced Monday that it will begin accepting and processing 2021 tax year returns on January 24—17 days earlier than last year.

“The speed at which the IRS is filing taxes is going to be determined by not only workload volume, but COVID has been playing a nasty, nasty game,” said Tom Elder, vice president of financial planning for Compass Retirement Solutions. “This is going to be a very busy season, especially now that the window has just changed.”

Whether you file today, tomorrow, or January 24, Elder said, the latest surge could affect the agency’s ability to process taxes if employees have COVID. “The big issue is, ‘Is that going to be affecting the IRS?’ Because those are people, too,” Elder said.

Kathy Ayers, a certified public accountant, said that hers is among the many industries still working to navigate COVID times. “We’re still working through the pandemic and all of the issues it created,” said Ayers, who has been in the finance industry for three decades.

She said the announcement from the IRS gives the agency time to work. “The IRS has been understaffed for a very long time anyway, and to get the word out there, ya know, that we’re still processing paper returns from last year, they’re still trying to catch up, be patient with them, be patient with us,” Ayers said.

She said the best thing tax filers can do is start filing now. “You’ll be first in line as soon as the e-file opens. Those will be hitting the IRS computers first. Get that refund quicker,” Ayers said. “The longer you delay into February and March, the slower the processing time is just because of volume that the IRS has.”

Avoiding a paper tax return will be more important than ever this year to avert processing delays, IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said. He urged taxpayers to file their returns electronically and to get their refunds by direct deposit.

It is also important for taxpayers who received a COVID relief economic impact payment last year or who got an advance child tax credit payment to make sure they report the correct amount on their tax returns to avoid processing delays, Rettig said.

The final day for tax returns to be filed is Monday, April 18, three days later than the traditional April 15 filing deadline. The later date is a result of an Emancipation Holiday in the District of Columbia. By law, Washington, D.C., holidays impact tax deadlines for everyone the same way federal holidays do. April 18 is also the deadline for requesting an extension, which gives taxpayers until October 17 to file their returns for 2021.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.