15,000 people could die in Northern Ireland in a coronavirus “worst case scenario,” Health Minister Robin Swann warned on Thursday.
“The scale of the surge coming towards us is of biblical proportions,” he said.
“Our health service is already fast becoming unrecognisable before our very eyes.”
Earlier on Thursday Mr Swann had warned that up to 9,000 could die if people do not take precautions but later revised the figure upwards to an estimated 15,000.
The first coronavirus-related death in Northern Ireland has been confirmed.
The patient was male, elderly, had an underlying medical condition and was being treated in a hospital in the greater Belfast area, the BBC reports.
The patient was among the 77 people who have tested positive for Covid-19 in Northern Ireland.
Outlining plans to deal with a surge, Mr Swann earlier said testing capacity would be expanded to about 800 Covid-19 tests per day.
His department is considering bringing in private suppliers at the beginning of next week.
Mr Swann announced that third-year nursing and midwifery students due to qualify within six months would be redeployed to clinical care duties.
“This will happen within the next 14 days and will provide support of up to 800 senior nursing and midwifery students,” he said.
Meanwhile, about 230 final year medical students at Queen’s University will join the medical register four months earlier than originally envisaged.
Stressing the importance of “social responsibility” in terms of following government advice regarding precautions, Mr Swann said: “These aren’t light requests, these are things that will pull down [the number of deaths] significantly.”
Mr Swann said “changes that would have seemed unthinkable weeks ago will become the new norm”.
“Decisions that would previously have taken months or even years will be taken in hours.”
On Thursday afternoon, Belfast City Council announced that the chapel at Roselawn crematorium will close from Monday “in order to protect the staff who have to undertake [cremations], and also to protect grieving families and friends from the growing transmission of Covid-19”.
Cremations will continue to be carried out, but no family can attend them.
“We understand that families may wish to make alternative arrangements to hold a service or ceremony elsewhere,” it said in a statement.
Mr Swann said if social distancing and other measures were properly implemented, they could reduce the peak by some 50% and reduce deaths by up to a third.
He said planning assumptions indicated 8% of infected people would need hospital treatment, 0.7% would require critical care, and 1% would die.
However he added the figures would vary highly depending on age and other health factors.
“There is no doubt that these measures come at a cost,” he said.
“They will be difficult for people to stick to. They will have significant social and economic impacts. But they will save lives.”