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Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C., in June 2010.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

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.

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"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 capital where it first appeared — is circulating throughout the province, said Dr. Perry Kendall, provincial health officer.

Dr. 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," Dr. 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," Dr. 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.

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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, Dr. Kendall said.

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

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

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