California health officials warned people Wednesday to take care when handling food after a marked increase in cases of norovirus, which they also subtly referred to as “winter vomiting disease.”

The California Department of Public Health has confirmed 32 separate outbreaks of the virus since the beginning of October, which likely caused hundreds of illnesses. That number far exceeds the number of reported outbreaks in the state by this time last year, officials said.

Dr. Karen Smith, state public health director, said the illness can be avoided with some simple but important precautions.

“One of the most important things you can do to avoid norovirus and other illnesses this holiday season is to wash your hands frequently with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds,” she said. “This is especially important after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food. Hand sanitizers are not effective against norovirus.”

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