First Minister Arlene Foster has defended the Executive's decision to relax restrictions over Christmas after hospitals struggled under intense pressure over the weekend.
Speaking on Monday Mrs Foster praised hospital workers as a further 16 deaths linked to Covid-19 and a further 759 cases were confirmed.
"The Executive unanimously decided on our Christmas plans, as indeed the people in the Republic of Ireland and indeed right across the United Kingdom - recognising the special place that Christmas has for a lot of us," she told the BBC.
"I think it's more than just that. I think we now know that the new variant in terms of coronavirus is here in Northern Ireland.
"The South African variant unfortunately appears to be in the Republic of Ireland. We have no current cases detected in Northern Ireland and we want to keep it that way.
"However, we do know that the virus does mutate and we are seeing that now and that's why we have to take action when we see that happening."
She added that the Executive could be forced to introduce even more restrictions as the effects of the Christmas period continue to be felt.
"There are very limited ways that we can do anything further, apart from looking again at curfews and doing something along those lines, but at present we will of course hear what our medical advisors have to say to us tomorrow and on Thursday," she said.
She praised those healthcare workers for their dedication after increased pressures on Craigavon Area Hospital and Daisy Hill Hospital over the weekend.
"We did go above 2,000 positive cases in a couple of days so therefore that is now feeding its way through the hospital system regrettably," she said.
"We will have this pressure on the system I think now for a couple of weeks and we have to ready ourselves for that.
"I want to pay tribute to all of the nurses and doctors who answered the call, for example from the Southern Trust and the Western Trust last night to try and help out their colleagues, even though they weren't scheduled to be at work.
"I think that just shows what these people are made of and they came forward and did that."
Her comments come as a number of leading medical figures have warned the worst is yet to come this month.
By Monday morning, there were 69 Covid-19 patients in the South Eastern Trust, close to the peak of 73 during the second surge.
Ulster Hospital's intensive care unit, with a capacity of 16, had 10 patients on Monday with half testing positive for Covid.
Once capacity is reached patients will be transferred to the Nightingale facility at Belfast City Hospital.
Dr David Robinson is director of hospital services and said he expected the third surge of the pandemic to be the most severe.
"The ask of us is the same as everyone else and so we're meeting with colleagues in Belfast and across the region daily," he said.
Director of nursing Nicki Patterson predicted the next few weeks would be "extremely challenging" for all health trusts.
She called on the public to ease pressure on hospitals by strictly adhering to the coronavirus restrictions and urged people only to come to the emergency departments when they need to.
"In the incoming weeks, unfortunately we are not going to be able to care for everyone in the way we would normally want to, but we will do our very best," she said.
Dr Damian Gormley is the Southern Health Trust's deputy director and said the current crisis was the most challenging of his 25 year career.
Speaking to Cool FM, he said there were currently around 25-30 admissions per day with Covid which compared to around eight or nine during the first wave with a peak of 60 people in hospital at any one time.
"We currently have 170 inpatients on our wards with Covid-19 and very regrettably we expect that number to continue to escalate over the coming weeks," he said.
"It is a very difficult and challenging time for all. We are expecting over the next two weeks for those numbers to steadily increase.
"So we are expecting to get admissions certainly north of 30 over the coming weeks and we may see our inpatient numbers being over 300 regrettably over that period of time."
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said cancellations and healthcare workers being begged to come back to work meant the Executive should take control of private healthcare facilities.
Ulster Unionist councillor Julie Flaherty, meanwhile, hit out at DUP MP Carla Lockhart for linking the increased demand at Craigavon Hospital as "mainly due to weekend pressures".