VANCOUVER - Several small outbreaks of the norovirus in Vancouver area hospitals have nearly run their course, but a new strain of the highly contagious virus has led to a spike in the number of overall cases in B.C. this winter.

An acute care ward for the elderly at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster was reopened for admissions on Thursday. Another ward at the hospital remained closed.

At Vancouver General Hospital, officials said if there were no more cases at an acute care ward, the outbreak would be declared over on Friday and the ward reopened for admissions.

"We're seeing hundreds of people who are affected by norovirus," said Tasleem Juma, spokeswoman for Fraser Health.

"This year is a particularly difficult year simply because it's a new strain."

The Sydney strain of the gastrointestinal virus — named after the Australian city where it first appeared — is circulating throughout the province, said Dr. Perry Kendall, provincial health officer.

Kendall said the number of norovirus cases in November were about three times the number seen in the same month the previous year. In December, there were about two times the cases.

"So we do have more Norwalk outbreaks going on than we've had in quite a while," Kendall said.

It's partly cyclical, but the new strain is also a factor, he said.

"There are a variety of strains of Norwalk and you become immune to one but not necessarily others, and the immunity is temporary in any case. So if we have a strain that is relatively new to the population, we can expect more illness," Kendall said.

There also have been outbreaks at five Metro Vancouver daycare centres and a half dozen regional facilities in recent weeks involving the infection, which is also known as Norwalk virus.

More than 40 people at a Kamloops residential care facility were under quarantine Thursday because of an outbreak. Nearly two dozen staff members and 22 residents of Ridgeview Lodge were segregated after the virus surfaced in late December.

The virus has also been confirmed on Vancouver Island.

There have been no deaths associated with these illnesses, which cause diarrhea and vomiting.

The virus passes in 24 to 48 hours, and medical officials said the best course is to stay home and stay hydrated.

It is also flu season, which got an early start this year, Kendall said.

The good news is that flu vaccines are effective against the virus in circulation, he said.

"It's still not too late to get your influenza shot if you haven't had one."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly referred to Sydney as Australia's capital

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  • 1. Grocery Store Cashier

    Eggs, milk, and -- a case of sniffles? If your checkout clerk at the supermarket has a cold, the virus is likely on her hands, and she can pass on the germs by touching something you will touch, from your credit card to the bananas. "[Cold and flu] are mostly spread through hand-to-mouth contact," says David Fletcher, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth. "You get the germs on your hands, then you rub your nose or touch your mouth, and you can get sick." One way to lower your risk for infection is to use the self-service credit card swipe machine available at most stores. You should still use a no-rinse hand sanitizer after touching it, however, because the keypad is probably laden with germs, too. The same hand sanitizer rule applies if you're receiving change after paying with cash.

  • 2. Catching A Cold From A Coughing Co-Worker

    The elevator in your office building isn't just a quick way to get upstairs -- it's also a quick way to catch a bug. Confined environments are ideal settings for passing germs because you touch things that other people have touched. Inhaling airborne droplets can also make you ill, but it's rarer because most people politely <a href="">cough or sneeze into their hands</a>, Dr. Fletcher says. The solution? Take the stairs. If you must use the elevator, make liberal use of -- you guessed it -- your pocket-size bottle of hand sanitizer until you can get to a sink to wash up.

  • 3. Catching A Cold From A Close Talking Boss

    If a tissue-clutching manager calls you over, be on high alert. Even if you don't touch your boss, simply talking in close proximity can release tiny germ droplets into the air, where they can remain suspended for several hours at a time. To avoid being infected this way, try standing as far away if possible -- this may reduce, though not eliminate, your chance of getting sick. If you simply can't get away, <a href="">wash your hands</a> afterward and hope for the best.

  • 4. Catching A Cold From A Young Child

    Spend any amount of time in a classroom setting and it's clear why illnesses like the common cold spread quickly: The amount of uncovered-mouth coughing and sneezing is astounding. Add frequently touched crayons, books, and toys to the mix and you have the ideal place to pick up the bug of the week. Kids "don't think much about where their hands have been when they put their hands in their mouth or their nose," Fletcher says. "As you get older, you tend to do that less." Interestingly, kids are also more likely to catch illnesses from someone of their own gender. To <a href="">prevent colds and flu</a>, ask the teacher how often students wash their hands during a typical school day. You can also make sure the classroom is stocked with a healthy supply of soap, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes.

  • 5. Catching A Cold From Your Partner

    Sharing a household and a bed with someone battling a cold or flu significantly ups the chances of becoming ill yourself. "It's very hard to sleep right next to someone and share the same bathroom and sink and not get sick," Fletcher says. To help cut down partner-to-partner <a href="">transmission of the common cold</a>, place soap at every sink in your house and use it frequently. Cleaning household surfaces like counters and tables with antibacterial cleaners can also help. (Kissing, of course, doesn't help.) If it's vital that you stay well -- say, if you have a big presentation or important trip planned -- it may be wise to move to different sleeping quarters until your partner is no longer a cold-germ carrier. "Obviously this doesn't fit into most people's lifestyles, but it can be done," Fletcher says.

  • 6. Catching A Cold From A Friendly Flight Attendant

    <a href="">Airplanes are prime territory for catching a cold</a> because of the closed environment, just like an office. Recirculation of air carrying the common cold virus in the airplane cabin may play a role in distributing the germs, Fletcher says, but again, the touch factor is probably the bigger culprit. To reduce your exposure, make good use of hand sanitizer after taking anything from the flight attendants, and bring disinfecting wipes for hard surfaces like the seat armrests.