A Covid-19 testing programme should be urgently put in place in care homes across Northern Ireland in a bid to save lives, a leading dementia charity said.
The Alzheimer's Society has called on the Health Minister to implement such an initiative across the province to identify hotspots of infection in nursing homes where thousands of the most high risk members of society live, after claiming social care has "fallen to the bottom of the pile".
There are serious concerns for the safety of 16,000 residents of nursing and residential homes here, particularly in relation to the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and testing of residents suspected of having coronavirus.
Concerns have also been raised as patients are being discharged from hospital into care homes without being tested for the virus.
Meanwhile, there is confusion over the extent of the spread of Covid-19 throughout the community after health bosses said it is "difficult to determine precisely" the number of people who have received treatment outside of hospitals for coronavirus or coronavirus-like symptoms.
This is despite the fact that it is a notifiable disease, meaning that doctors must alert authorities when a patient is diagnosed with Covid-19.
Bernadine McCrory, Alzheimer's Society Director in Northern Ireland, said: "Unfortunately, as is so often the case, people who need social care are quite often the bottom of the pile.
"We completely appreciate the importance of the work being done in intensive care units and in the hospital wards, but we don't believe the community sector should be treated any differently.
"It is quite obvious that if staff in care homes have proper access to personal protective equipment, then it would reduce the transmission of Covid-19 and reduce the number of people who need hospital treatment. This would, in turn, reduce the pressure on our hospitals, which is a primary objective of the coronavirus response."
"Testing plays a crucial role in this as well - over 70% of people living in care homes have some form of dementia and many of these people may be infected without showing any outward signs of being unwell.
"If someone has dementia, they may have difficulties communicating when they don't feel well so greater testing of care home residents would give a much broader picture of what is really going on," Ms McCrory said.
"Many care home residents, and people living in the community with dementia, won't be able to say that they don't feel well, meaning that the people looking after them could be unwittingly infected and pass the virus on to other people.
"We appreciate that staff in care homes are working extremely hard to keep people isolated in their own rooms but this in itself is challenging, the residents live in such close proximity and staff are going from room to room.
"We would like to see all residents and staff tested where 10% of residents of a home have or are suspected of having the virus as it would give a clearer picture and help to keep everyone safe.
"We don't think just one person should be tested, we think everyone should be tested. It seems a sensible approach and this should be introduced urgently, the surge is happening now, time is of the essence.
"We are also saying that no-one should be admitted to a care home from a hospital without being tested for coronavirus first.
"All of this would provide more reassurance and make the jobs of staff easier, particularly given the fact that they are looking after some of the most vulnerable members of society.
"It has to be acknowledged that many care home staff regard the residents as extended members of their families and the work that they are doing should be recognised," Ms McCrory added.
Pauline Shepherd, chief executive of Independent Health & Care Providers, said it appears PPE is now arriving in care homes, but stressed the supply must not wane. She also reiterated concerns over staffing levels in some homes where up to 20% of workers may be self-isolating.