Gov. Abbott urges Texans to get flu shot as early as possible this season

Gov. Greg Abbott was in Dallas Thursday to discuss preparations for the upcoming flu season, which he said will pose a new challenge for hospitals.

The governor says there's a downward trend in the number of North Texans testing positive for COVID-19. Hospitalizations are also down. But he warns against complacency. He says a bad flu season can spike hospitalizations.

Medical experts are urging folks to get the flu vaccine as soon as possible.

The governor attended a roundtable event with state health leaders and other medical experts at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“We know that the flu season is coming up. And if flu season this coming year were as severe as it was last year on top of the pandemic of COVID-19, that could pose substantial challenges for your hospitals, as well as for your PPE supplies,” Abbott said.

The governor and the doctors strongly urged Texans to get a flu shot this year and get as early as September to help make sure hospitals do not reach capacity with both flu and COVID-19 patients.

“So that we do everything we can to diminish the overall impact of the flu,” said UTSW Medical Center President Dr. David Podolsky.

“For a doctor, the symptoms of flu and COVID19 are very similar,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt with the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Medical experts say the continued use of face masks, good hand hygiene and social distancing practices for COVID-19 could also help curb the spread of the flu. Many North Texans can get the flu vaccine for free.

“Our health department offers the vaccine, and we do the best we can to go into neighborhoods and offer flu drives,” Abbott said.

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Another concern is the timing of flu season.

Many students will be headed back to the classroom for the first time since social distancing practices went into effect.

Earlier this week, the governor said the state has more than $1 billion worth of personal protective equipment ready to help combat both COVID-19 and the flu. 

The state also has enough PPE supplies for school districts to keep students and teachers safe, he said.

Governor Abbott said he's more concerned about what students do after school rather than when they are in the classroom supervised by teachers and staff.

"As students depart school for the day, they must maintain the very safest practices as they go home and do not gather in these different types of locations that will lead to a spread of COVID-19," he said.

Abbott is confident schools will be ready for the fall semester but said districts do need to be ready to move from in-person to online learning if there is a localized COVID-19 outbreak.

“School districts get to make their own decision and they get to take in the advice of local public health authorities as well as state and national health authorities. And then in addition to that, they can provide either an in-classroom setting, a remote learning setting or a combination of the two instilling the safest practice possible,” he said.

The governor believes the state’s mask mandate is working. He told FOX 4 that masks are cutting the number of people now in hospitals statewide. He called them uncomfortable but said they are the best way to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Pretty soon, maybe as soon as September, there will be therapeutic drugs that people will be able to take who test positive for COVID-19 and then we keep seeing these news stories about the acceleration of vaccines potentially becoming available maybe as early as November. And when vaccines start becoming available, it will mean that we will be able to build up the sense of herd immunity,” Abbott said.

Abbott said the state’s mask mandate may be lifted before the end of the year if the numbers continue to improve and there are better treatments available for people with COVID-19.

When it comes to COVID-19 testing, Gov. Abbott says capacity could soon dramatically increase.

Currently, UT Southwestern alone can test up to 3,000 people per day. There's a plan in the works that will eventually get that number up to 40,000 tests the hospital can perform daily.

RELATED: Interactive map of Texas COVID-19 cases