Public health and hospital officials west of Thunder Bay are requesting those with respiratory-illness symptoms “to manage at home” if they’re able, in order to reduce rising patient volumes at rural hospitals.

At a media briefing this week by the Northwestern Health Unit, Dr. Kit Young Hoon, the Kenora district’s medical officer of health, said all hospitals have been experiencing “rapid” increases in the number of cases involving symptoms of flu or COVID-19.

“We could be facing a difficult a winter” if the trend continues, Young Hoon warned.

Kenora’s Lake of the Woods hospital chief executive officer Ray Racette told the briefing that 25 per cent of people showing up at his emergency department so far this fall have been children with respiratory symptoms like severe coughs.

“This has been a long journey with COVID,” said Racette. “It’s never really gone away.”

Though the province has not made the wearing of masks mandatory, Racette said “we can choose to wear masks. This is how we can manage the latest wave (of the pandemic).”

On the positive side, Young Hoon said turnouts at COVID-19 vaccination clinics have been strong.