It’s not too late to get a flu shot and anyone who hasn’t already gotten one should do so quickly, as the country is experiencing an early outbreak that has reached the crisis stage in some cities.

Medical professionals nationwide are urging anyone at least 6 months of age to get the flu vaccine as places such as Boston are dealing with a local crisis. The mayor of Boston has declared a public health emergency as hospitals there are being deluged with patients. A hospital in Allentown, Pa., set up a tent to handle the steady stream of flu patients.

Statewide, more than 19,000 flu cases have been reported this year, compared to just over 4,000 last year. Erie County, fortunately, has not been hit hard, so far. Officials don’t have an actual number of cases, because many people do not see a doctor or have a lab test. But the testing that is done shows that over the past three weeks, there has been a sharp increase in the number of confirmed cases of influenza.

Media outlets have been carrying heartbreaking stories of deaths among the very young and the oldest patients. Nationally, deaths and hospitalizations remain below epidemic thresholds. That may not hold, though, with the peak season approaching.

Over a period of 31 seasons between 1976 and 2007, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people, according to information provided by the Erie County Health Department.

Those 65 and older are particularly vulnerable, with figures showing that during a regular season about 90 percent of deaths occur in this age group. The youngest and those with weakened immune systems are also at high risk. It’s important to contact a primary care physician when it comes to concerns about flu symptoms.

But there is hope. There is plenty of flu vaccine available and it is effective against the strains the medical community is seeing. This year’s flu shot is well-matched to the H3N2 strain – the predominant flu strain circulating.

There are two types of vaccines available, the traditional injection or a nasal spray. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for the body to form the antibodies that provide protection against the influenza viruses.

The county Health Department has information on flu clinics. Pharmacies also offer flu shots at a minimal charge. Federally funded health centers offer flu shots for those without health insurance.

Flu shots are not perfect protection, but they reduce the chances of being stricken, and that means fewer people spreading the virus around to others. The vaccine can go a long way in preventing the dreaded fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue.