SAN DIEGO (AP) — A severe flu season this fall and winter could overwhelm California hospitals that are preparing for an uptick in COVID-19 cases as the economy further reopens, officials said Thursday. They urged people to get vaccinated to prevent that from happening.

California Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly speaking with the heads of the state’s hospital and medical associations, said while the state has seen progress with coronavirus infection rates falling to their lowest level of the pandemic this week, officials are bracing for a surge as people start going out more just as the flu season begins.

That means it’s critical people protect themselves from the flu to help keep hospital bed space available to treat people infected with the coronavirus, Ghaly said.

Officials recommend every Californian six months and older receive a flu shot this year. In past years, less than half of the state’s adult population and less than two-thirds of children have gotten the flu vaccine.

Drive-thru flu vaccination sites have been opened to provide easy, quick and safe options for people, including at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in the San Francisco Bay area, where the flu vaccination and COVID-19 testing sites are in the same location.

The potential exists for hundreds of COVID-19 cases to show up in an emergency room with an equal number of severe flu cases, which could overwhelm a hospital, Ghaly said.

“We are still very vulnerable with so many things coming as we enter winter,” he said.

Hospitals are currently treating 3,500 confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients, according to the California Hospital Association. About 30 percent are in intensive care units.

California has reported more than 790,000 confirmed cases, the most in the country, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The nation’s most populous state ranks fourth nationwide for deaths at 15,000.

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