Northern Ireland could be only two weeks away from implementing a country-wide coronavirus lockdown like Italy if effective steps are not taken to prevent it from spreading, an expert virologist has warned.
Dr Lindsay Broadbent also said that it was a case of "when and not if" the first coronavirus-related death occurs here.
The Queen's University Belfast researcher was speaking after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar revealed the virus death toll could reach 85,000 in the Irish Republic in a worst-case scenario.
Cases, or suspected ones, have been announced at Linfield FC, Danske Bank in Armagh and at Craigavon drug manufacturer Almac.
Dr Broadbent said Northern Ireland could witness a "very high number of deaths" if effective measures were not taken to thwart the spread of the virus.
"It's only a matter of time. There will be deaths in Northern Ireland, but obviously we will not see as many deaths as on the mainland," she said. "I think in the coming weeks we will see a steep increase in the number of cases here."
Her warning comes as:
On Tuesday night, a spokesperson for pharmaceutical giant Almac said one of its Craigavon-based employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.
"The company is working with the Public Health Agency and has performed a deep clean of the affected area," Almac said.
Danske Bank also confirmed a worker in its Armagh branch was suspected to have coronavirus "and is awaiting test results".
"As a precaution, we have closed the branch with immediate effect to undertake a deep clean and all other colleagues from this branch have been asked to self-isolate at home until further notice," the bank said.
On Tuesday the Western Health Trust urged people not to visit patients. In a tweet, the Trust said: "We are taking necessary precautions to protect our patients and staff from #COVID19. We are asking the public not to visit patients in our hospitals and community facilities unless absolutely essential. Where possible, please attend your appointment on your own."
In recent days there have been signs of growing alarm in the UK, including panic buying.
However, Dr Broadbent pointed to Northern Ireland's large number of rural communities, which she said puts us at more of an advantage over other parts of the UK.
She said it was not her area of expertise to estimate a death toll, but said we could not let the "coronavirus run wild".
"The UK as a whole at the minute is in the same place Italy was in two weeks ago. Two weeks ago in Italy there were around 300 cases, which is about the same as the UK now. So what we don't want to happen is that in two weeks' time we are where Italy is now, because they're in complete lockdown," she said.
On Tuesday Italy extended coronavirus travel restrictions previously limited to the country's northern region to the whole country, with soldiers and police enforcing bans. More than 9,000 people have been infected with Covid-19 in Italy, with 463 deaths as of Tuesday, amid deepening concern that the numbers will only worsen.
Dr Broadbent said measures introducing social distancing as well as cancelling large-scale sporting events would help prevent Northern Ireland following in Italy's footsteps.
Tickets for this month's Euro 2020 play-off clash between Bosnia and Northern Ireland, due to go on sale in Bosnia today, have been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Some Six Nations rugby fixtures, including Ireland v Italy and France v Ireland, have also been postponed.
However, Dr Broadbent questioned the effectiveness of cancelling official St Patrick's Day celebrations.
"This is a tricky one because there's no point in cancelling the parade if everyone's still going to the pubs," she said. "Transmission is unlikely to happen at a parade. It's much more likely to happen when you're spending a few hours in a very crowded bar.
"I'm not sure of the benefits of cancelling St Patrick's Day, but I think more enclosed large-scale events should be considered."
Health Minister Robin Swann said: "It is likely to get much more challenging before we are through the worst."
He added that, guided by the evidence, health officials will act to delay and push the peak to lessen the pressures on our health service.