Health Minister Robin Swann has said that Northern Ireland will be dealing with the coronavirus outbreak "well into 2021".
He said that now was not the time for the easing of lockdown restrictions, but acknowledged "difficult conversations" would have to take place about returning to normal life.
Mr Swann made the comments while addressing the Northern Ireland Assembly's Covid-19 Committee on Wednesday afternoon.
The Health Minister also said that the modelling indicated that the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, expected between April 6 and 20, would be "less severe than first feared".
As of Wednesday, 140 people have died in hospital as a result of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, with 2,088 confirmed cases.
Mr Swann said that social distancing was having an impact and praised the public for sticking to the guidelines during the Easter holidays.
The Health Minister also confirmed that he had approved two decisions to activate Military Aid to Civil Authority (MACA).
He gave the go-ahead for the British Army to become involved in redistributing medical equipment between hospitals in Northern Ireland and to take part in planning for a temporary secondary Nightingale facility.
Mr Swann again acknowledged issues with the supply of PPE and said he was "rigorously pursuing every supply line both locally and elsewhere".
He said that the UK was working closely as part of the 4 Nations PPE Plan and admitted sending 250,000 gowns to England over the past two weeks as part of the sharing of PPE. Mr Swann said he was also exploring supply lines in the Irish Republic.
He promised a "thorough examination" of the flow of PPE to ensure staff get it when they need it.
Addressing testing, the Health Minister moved to clear up confusion around why testing appears lower than the 1,000 plus testing capacity currently in place.
He said this was because "it often takes more than one test to confirm a positive or negative diagnosis".
Mr Swann said he was committed to increasing the number of tests carried out daily in Northern Ireland and said a second test centre would open in Londonderry "imminently".
He said a working group had been set up to explore ways to increase testing with the ultimate aim of moving towards "surveillance of COVID-19 in the population to inform planning of services including surge capacity, and to estimate population immunity".
Turning to Covid-19 outbreaks in care homes the Health Minister promised that care home residents and staff are being tested when they display symptoms.
"Let me be clear. Every single one of our residents in nursing and care homes matter just as much as every other citizen in our society," Mr Swann told the committee.
He said the number of Covid-19 deaths in Northern Ireland, in both hospital and community settings, would now be published once a week by the Northern Ireland Statistical and Research Agency.
Mr Swann said that many care home residents who die of the virus were already being included in the Public Health Agency's daily bulletins as they were transferred to hospital before passing away.
The Health Minister also expressed confidence in the Northern Ireland health service's ability to deal with the pandemic, outlining the current hospital provision.
This is no time for final verdicts to be delivered, favourable or critical. We are in this for the long haulRobin Swann
He revealed there are 143 adult Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds available, with a further 12 paediatric beds.
As of Wednesday there are 49 Covid patients in ICU, with a further 38 non-Covid, leaving 56 spare ICU beds.
There are 197 ventilators, 3,820 geriatric and acute beds, with currently 603 Covid-19 related inpatients, including both confirmed and or suspected cases, and 1,345 non-covid patients in hospitals across Northern Ireland, meaning that, as it stands, there are almost 1,900 empty beds.
"If our modelling is accurate, this should be more than sufficient capacity to meet this surge," Mr Swann said.
He reiterated that, without a vaccine, Northern Ireland would have to prepare for a second wave of Covid-19 cases later in 2020.
Mr Swann said the Executive had reviewed the current lockdown measures and said it was not yet safe for them to be relaxed.
"The restrictions continue to be necessary if we are to continue to flatten the epidemic curve, manage the capacity of the health service and keep Covid-19 deaths to a minimum," the Health Minister said.
"There will be a further review which will inform how we progress and the position will be closely monitored, however now, as before, the message remains the same – please keep safe, stay home, and protect our NHS, as they are working to protect us."
Mr Swann also criticised those spreading false information around the coronavirus pandemic on social media.
"I would urge everyone to avoid speculation or rushing to judgement. Comparing our statistics and our actions – favourably or otherwise – with other countries is premature at best," he said.
"It is highly likely that this planet is going to be battling the coronavirus well into 2021 at least. The prospect of a second surge later this year must weigh heavily on all our minds.
"This is no time for final verdicts to be delivered, favourable or critical. We are in this for the long haul."