Stormont health minister Robin Swann has described a surge of coronavirus cases in the north-west of Northern Ireland as “not expected”.
The Derry City and Strabane Council area had previously seen lower numbers of Covid-19 compared with other areas.
But a surge saw it become one of the areas in the UK with the highest number of cases per 100,000 people.
Mr Swann told the Stormont health committee there is “sustained transmission” of Covid-19 in the community in Derry and Strabane.
“The increase that we’ve seen in the Strabane and Derry City Council area has been stark, it’s been dramatic. It’s not something that we were expecting, to be brutally frank,” he told MLAs.
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan raised concerns with the minister over services, saying there is a Covid service, but not a health service unless you have an immediate life-threatening condition.
“When can we expect normal service to be resumed?” he asked.
Mr Swann responded by saying it is not possible to give a date until Covid-19 has gone away.
But he said officials are trying to open up as many services as possible.
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride warned the health service is not likely to be “business as usual for many, many months … until such times as we have better control on the virus”.
He also gave a stark description of the experience of a seriously-ill Covid-19 patient, saying it is “difficult for people to imagine what it’s like to be fighting for your breath”.
“You’ve got a mask tightly fitted over your face, which many people find quite claustrophobic,” he said.
“It’s a bit like facing into a wind tunnel, you’ve got this air coming at high pressure forcing air into your airways, it’s a very unpleasant experience.
It’s a very, very scary experience, and when individuals are paralysed and ventilated, they don’t know whether they are going to wake up againDr Michael McBride
“What you know as a patient sitting there is it’s the difference between you keeping well and staying well, and perhaps ending up needing to be transferred into intensive care.
“Then comes the conversation that has to be had with those individuals, that once they are ventilated they might never wake up again, it may not ever be possible to take them off the ventilator.
“It’s a very, very scary experience, and when individuals are paralysed and ventilated, they don’t know whether they are going to wake up again, and their relatives don’t know if they are going to wake up again, and sadly for too many, they don’t.”
SDLP MLA Colin McGrath joined the meeting by video call after going into self-isolation following a notification via the Stop Covid NI app that he had been in contact with a positive case of Covid-19.
He described himself as “the living embodiment of the Covid app actually working”.