Northern Ireland has been warned to brace itself for further coronavirus deaths over the next couple of weeks.
Dr Connor Bamford, a virologist at Queen’s University Belfast, urged the public to not let up in the fight against the pandemic after an elderly man was confirmed on Thursday to be first person here to die from Covid-19.
The death was announced by Health Minister Robin Swann who revealed the male patient - who had underlying health issues - passed away in a hospital in the greater Belfast area.
Dr Bamford said it was always a case of not if but when health authorities experienced the first coronavirus fatality, stressing measures such social distancing and the closure of schools is the “new normal”.
A total of 77 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland as of Thursday. Meanwhile, in the Republic, 557 people have tested positive and three people have died, according to the latest figures.
Condolences have paid to the loved ones of the elderly man, with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister - along with Mr Swann - all expressing sympathy.
Stormont leader Arlene Foster described the news as a “sad day for Northern Ireland”.
“This is not unexpected news. We knew that this pandemic would inevitably cost precious lives,” she continued.
“We cannot stop it. But it is incumbent on all of us to do whatever we can to slow its spread and shield those most vulnerable from the effects of this virus.”
Research fellow at QUB and virologist Dr Connor Bamford
Echoing her plea, Dr Bamford stressed the first coronavirus death is a “wake-up call” to the public not to ignore the seriousness of this health crisis.
“This is really unfortunate but it was to be expected. We know the virus can infect people and can spread in a small proportion (of people) it can lead to serious illness and death,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“We know numbers have been increasing and that once you get over a certain number of cases you would expect a death and unfortunately this is what has happened.
“And we should expect more deaths over the next couple of weeks and months. I think this just reinforces the severity and why people need to take these public health measures like hand hygiene and social distancing seriously.”
“People should expect these numbers to go up, and to use this as a reminder that this is a quite a serious thing for the community and do everything we can to reduce its spread.
“If we can alter our behaviour we can limit it. Use this a wake-up call. This is the new normal for the next couple of months.”
Dr Bamford also warned the actual number of cases is likely to be more than 10 times higher than the confirmed number here.
He continued: “We don’t know how many cases we have, for one, we’re only testing the sickest. So you’re missing the vast majority of cases, so undoubtedly these (case) numbers are grossly underestimating the actual true burden of it.
“Undoubtedly we probably have around 1,000 total cases at the minute. The number of deaths is probably pretty accurate because we are testing those who are the sickest and it would be hard to miss, so those numbers are accurate.”
“It’s all about prevention, flattening the curve. Most people are going to be okay, it’s only a small number of
people that it will be fatal. This is really about stopping the spread.“
He added: “Don’t go to work, work from home, wash your hands more.”
Meanwhile, Arlene Foster paid tribute to the health service staff who had treated the patient.
“Our thoughts and prayers are first and foremost with the family and friends of the patient who has died. And we are immeasurably grateful to our health service staff who cared for this person,” she said.
Her comments were echoed by Michelle O’Neill, who said the death underlines the importance of the public playing its role in halting community transmission of the infection.
“At the heart of this is a person who has lost their life to Covid-19. While we knew this day would come, it doesn’t make it any less devastating for the loved ones of that individual.
“I offer them my heartfelt sympathy at this difficult time,” said the Deputy First Minister.
“This sad news brings home to us all why it is so important to take every step possible to protect ourselves and the most vulnerable. The social distancing measures we are urging everyone to take are not easy, but they are necessary.
“We all have a part to play in keeping people safe and ultimately saving lives.”