A contact tracing programme to track the spread of coronavirus in Northern Ireland is set to last for a year.
A pilot programme began at the start of April, tracking contacts associated with all confirmed cases of Covid-19.
Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann said it has now been ramped up to a seven-day operation and will last for at least a year.
He said the programme is the first of its kind in the UK.
On Tuesday, the Department of Health said there have been 489 deaths of patients who tested positive for the virus in the region.
Mr Swann described the R number in Northern Ireland as being between 0.7 and 0.8.
On Wednesday morning, he said there were fewer than 20 people in intensive care unit beds in Northern Ireland.
Giving evidence to the Stormont Health Committee later, Mr Swann said that, as of 9am, there were 70 care homes with confirmed outbreaks of Covid-19, 34 suspected or possible outbreaks and 35 concluded outbreaks.
On Tuesday he said 40% of care home residents have been tested.
“Whilst we are by no means through the storm, the situation in our care homes has greatly stabilised, especially when compared to the ongoing situation in care homes across the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said.
He also revealed that 284 health service staff in Northern Ireland are absent from work with positive Covid-19 tests, while 1,792 staff are self-isolating, which amounts to 2.9% of the staff population.
The minister described the contact tracing programme as a “major commitment”, adding that he expects the service to be in place for the next year at a minimum.
He said the region is the first in the UK to roll out such an extensive programme.
“This work is designed to break the chain of transmission of the virus by identifying people with Covid-19, tracing people who have been in close contact with them and supporting those people to self-isolate so that if they have the disease they are less likely to transmit it to others,” the minister told the committee.
“Support from the public will be absolutely critical to the success of this strategy as we will be relying on citizens to report symptoms, be tested and to follow self isolation advice if recommended.
“We have tested the processes for contact tracing and as from Monday we have been undertaking contact tracing for all confirmed positive cases of Covid-19.
“This service was built on a contact tracing pilot run by the Public Health Agency which began on April 27. The pilot programme had been operating on a five day week basis, the first of its type in the United Kingdom, and we have now firmly have moved beyond the pilot phase.
“The service is now operating over a seven day week which will be a major commitment as we expect this service to be in place for the next year at least.
“As an illustration, on May 18 we added 36 confirmed cases to the programme and successfully followed up on 35 of them.”
In terms of staffing for the programme, Mr Swann said there are currently 58 in place, with 24 in training at the minute, and over 800 on a volunteer list.
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan questioned Mr Swann on why a previous contact tracing initiative was stopped.
Mr Swann responded: “When we moved to complete lockdown and isolation, it proved then it was no longer practical because everyone was staying in the house.”
The minister also said he will shortly be publishing a strategic framework for rebuilding the health and social care services in Northern Ireland following the impact of coronavirus.
“Before Covid-19 our waiting lists were awful, they’ll now be frightening,” he said.
“It will require serious efforts and serious financial commitment to fix the damage that this virus has done.”