At least 10 residents of a Londonderry care home have died in just 18 days as coronavirus spreads throughout the facility, it can be revealed.
It is understood the deaths of the residents of Owen Mor Care Centre are linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving families and staff devastated and revealing just how dangerous the virus is to people living in care homes.
A brother and sister, who died just two days apart, are among those who have lost their lives at the home, which is registered to provide care to 81 people, while a number of other residents are being treated in hospital after they were diagnosed with the deadly bug.
It comes after the number of hospital deaths in the UK on Wednesday rose by 761 to 12,868, with six of those deaths registered in Northern Ireland - bringing to 140 the number of hospital deaths here since the beginning of the pandemic.
The deaths at Owen Mor have highlighted once again the likelihood that Northern Ireland's death toll is much higher than official figures suggest, as the statistics released to date do not include those that happen in community settings such as care homes.
Eight of the Owen Mor residents who passed away between March 28 and April 14 died at Owen Mor, meaning it is unlikely that their deaths have been included in official statistics.
Health Minister Robin Swann gave a commitment earlier this week that, from Friday, figures relating to cases of Covid-19 in care homes and subsequent deaths will be collected and released to the public.
The deaths at Owen Mor have come to light as it emerged that staff from the care home have been appealing on social media for donations of personal protective equipment (PPE), while the Western Trust refused to say whether it has suspended admissions to the facility.
Staff at the home have been traumatised by the mounting death toll and earlier this week they released balloons as a way to pay their respects to the people they had cared for in their final days.
A spokeswoman from the home said: "The sense of loss, due to recent deaths, within our home is unmeasurable.
"We cannot begin to understand how families are feeling right now. Staff are devastated at the loss of our much-loved residents and we offer our deepest sympathies to their families.
"If a resident tests positive this is immediately communicated to their next of kin and to other next of kin of residents in the home, and if their loved one is in the same unit we will inform them of this.
"The relevant government departments will be aware of all residents who are tested for Covid-19 and as always are informed of any deaths that occur in the home. Throughout, staff have been committed and relentless in their determination to provide the best care possible to everyone living in Owen Mor Care Centre.
"These are the most challenging of times and we continue to provide quality care in a calm, friendly and homely environment. As always we communicate with each resident's next of kin, keeping them up to date with the situation within the home.
"Even at this difficult time families have been extremely supportive to staff and they express their gratitude in the most generous of ways, including providing food and snacks for staff and sending many kind messages of thanks and encouragement.
"Staff follow guidance from the Public Health Agency and they have adequate supplies of PPE, these are replenished from home stock and from stock supplied by the Western Trust. PPE has also been donated from the community, including hand gel, gloves and eye protection, and we are very grateful for these.
"We continue to protect residents by nursing in isolation, checking temperatures, promoting handwashing, and trying to do everything possible to minimise human-to-human transmission."
The son of one of the residents currently receiving hospital treatment said: "Mum is stable at the moment, although she is still on oxygen support and was critical a number of times last week.
"I was discussing mum's care with a nurse and she mentioned they had been treating a lot of patients from the home. The first I knew anyone had coronavirus in the home was when someone contacted me to say they'd heard it was in the home.
"I spent all day ringing but when I couldn't get through to anyone I went down to the home and a member of staff came out and confirmed there were six cases. She said my mum was okay and the six people with the virus are in a different unit."
However, his mum, who has dementia, subsequently fell ill and was admitted to hospital.
"I was never informed of residents with symptoms or testing positive in my mum's unit," added the worried relative.
A spokeswoman from the Western Trust did not say whether admissions to the home have halted or how many people have been admitted to the home since March 28.
But she explained that officials have been providing support to Owen Mor for several weeks, including the provision of a significant uplift in PPE, providing managerial and clinical support, and priority access to Covid-19 testing for Owen Mor staff.