In the midst of one of the worst flu seasons in five years or so, health officials have this message: Get vaccinated to avoid becoming ill -- and don't be a trouper if you do.

Never taken a sick day, you say?

Well, if you drag your feverish, hacking self in to work, you'll likely be noted less for your dependability and more for your office casualty rate.

People will understand if you're sick and stay home until you recover.

They don't want your flu, anyway, especially one as virulent as this season's.

The influenza virus arrived earlier than usual this year and already has spread to most states, overwhelming some emergency rooms.

In Pennsylvania, at least 22 flu-related deaths -- including one at York Hospital -- were reported earlier this month, and two of those involved otherwise healthy people younger than 50.

Nearly 1,000 have been hospitalized for the flu-or flu-like symptoms so far in the state, with an average patient age of 67, according to the Department of Health.

At least 350 cases have been reported in York County, where local hospitals were at capacity earlier this month. Elsewhere in the state, Lehigh Valley Hospital was so overrun it erected a tent addition dedicated only to patients with flu symptoms.

Memorial and York hospitals are taking the extra step of urging people with cold or flu-like symptoms not to visit and possibly infect patients, and Hanover Hospital is limiting the number of visitors to two per patient at one time. At Misericordia Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in York, members of the nursing staff are required to wear masks.

These steps are being taken because the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, as well as pregnant women, are especially vulnerable to the flu.

A vaccination against the flu is the single best thing anyone -- but especially these high-risk groups -- can do to protect themselves against the virus.

Some hospitals consider them so important they now require their employees to be vaccinated, and health care workers have been fired for refusing them.

The flu season typically doesn't peak until late January or February so there's still time for a vaccination to be effective, although the shots might be in shorter supply now than they were earlier in the season.

York City has scheduled two vaccination clinics this week, and shots were still available last week at local pharmacies and walk-in clinics. Your family doctor also might still be able to provide one.

If you can't find a shot, the Centers for Disease Control suggests you protect yourself by washing your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub and staying away from sick people.

If you do come down with the flu, the CDC urges you to help stop its spread by covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze -- since that can spread the virus up to six feet.

And stay home for at least 24 hours after a fever is gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, which might take days.

You might be bored and lonely (not to mention miserable) for a while, but your colleagues will likely thank you upon your return.