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Sir Michael McBride said case numbers will “increasingly become a less reliable indicator” of how extensive the epidemic in this wave is.
“We’ve seen a significant change in testing behaviour, we’ve brought about some changes in our testing strategy with removing the requirements for confirmatory PCR tests, but it’s really important that people still report their positive lateral flow tests because that’s important for contact tracing,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme.
“I think the true peak we’re likely to see in the next couple of weeks, the next one-two weeks.
“I think the numbers will be much higher than we’re actually reporting and are much higher than we’re currently reporting.
“It’s important to bear in mind that hospital pressures continue to increase and we will see pressures there peak towards the latter end of January and into early February.
“There is a long and difficult time ahead for our health service and we can all play our part by getting our vaccine, getting our booster and protecting the health service.”
Asked about Northern Ireland having the worst infection rate in the UK, Sir Michael said comparing regions is complicated, pointing out that there is more testing in Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK.
“We’re testing more people in Northern Ireland than any other part of the UK, we have done for some time … we’re testing more people in Northern Ireland compared to the Republic of Ireland and clearly the more people you test the more cases you detect because obviously a third of cases of asymptomatic,” he said.
More than 7,000 further confirmed cases of the virus were notified over the weekend.
A further seven deaths of patients who had previously tested positive for Covid-19 were also notified.
The best thing that any of us can do to ensure that we stay well, that we protect our family, and that we ease some of the pressures on our health service, is to get vaccinated
Sir Michael McBride
Some 58,000 new cases of the virus have been reported in Northern Ireland since the start of 2022, more than the total for the first six months of 2021.
Sir Michael also urged all, and particularly those aged 50 and over, to come forward for vaccination.
He said the uptake of the vaccine has slowed down since Christmas.
“The best thing that any of us can do to ensure that we stay well, that we protect our family, and that we ease some of the pressures on our health service, is to get vaccinated,” he said.
“The vaccine is really really important and the booster is really really important to ensure that if you do get symptoms and you do get infected that the disease is much milder.”