The news of 18 further coronavirus deaths in Northern Ireland is a “grim wake up call” to those getting complacent about social distancing, the Health Minister Robin Swann has said.
At a daily briefing, he said it had been another “deeply distressing day” that had left multiple families heartbroken.
With the virus still at its peak in Northern Ireland, however, he added that relaxing hospital visit restrictions to Covid wards still presented "too significant a risk".
The latest figures show 18 people died from Covid-19 within 24 hours in Northern Ireland, the highest total to date.
This brings the total number of deaths here to 158 with 2,201 confirmed cases.
Across the UK, the 12,107 people have died in hospital with 444 deaths in the Irish Republic.
Mr Swann added that on Thursday there were 45 people in intensive care, with 105 hospital admissions on Wednesday due to Covid-19.
“We are in the midst of the biggest public health crisis in the history of Northern Ireland...but we must realise we are in the fight against this virus for the long haul," he said.
On hospital visits, he said there were small exceptions on hospital visits for palliative or end of life care.
“We are all human, we all share similar emotions. So when feasibly possible with prior arrangement with senior staff a visitor can be allowed on to a general ward to see a loved one who is sadly passing away."
He said restrictions on Covid wards could unfortunately not be relaxed.
“I have spoken to a number of senior clinicians. Their collective expert opinion is that allowing significant numbers of visits to ICUs presents too significant a risk.”
On concerns over the recent recording care home deaths, he said the loss of an older person was just as important.
“I have heard hurtful and untrue allegations being made about deaths in the community, and in particular care homes," he said.
“I can assure you, no one is being forgotten.”
He admitted there were challenges on recording deaths in the community, which he was working to improve.
“Let me be clear again, every single care home resident. Every senior citizen matters just as much as any other person in our society.
“That is why we must stick to social distancing for as long as it takes.”
The Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride assured anxious families unable to visit their loved ones in hospital they would get the best possible care.
He said Northern Ireland was now moving through the peak of the current wave of Covid-19, and maintaining social distancing measures was vital.
“We have some very difficult and challenging weeks ahead. We don’t yet know how long the peak of the pandemic will last here in Northern Ireland.”
Professor Ian Young, the chief scientific officer advising Stormont on Covid-19, said he expected a rise in deaths for at least another week.
He said although deaths were lower than originally predicted, the situation was still “on a knife edge.”
“It’s absolutely vital that people continue to adhere to the measures that are currently in place. Even a relatively small departure from that would be enough for us to see an increase in Covid again.”