The first case of coronavirus has been confirmed in the North in a patient who travelled via Dublin on their way home from Italy.
The patient has been placed in isolation to receive specialist care. Health officials are working to identify any contacts the patient had in order to prevent further spread.
Responding to the diagnosis, Health Minister Simon Harris said it was “not unexpected”.
The patient had contacted a GP and had taken steps to self-isolate.
Medical officials in the North confirmed that the patient is an adult who returned from northern Italy to Dublin before travelling to the North.
They declined to be drawn on whether the person travelled from Dublin to the North by public transport, and also would not confirm whether they were male or female, but they did state that the person was not travelling as part of a school trip.
The sample from the patient has been sent to Britain for verification but it has been described as a “presumptive positive test for coronavirus”.
The North’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, confirmed the case yesterday evening.
He said they have been planning for the first positive case in the North.
It was always a case of “when not if”, he said.
“We have robust infection control measures in place which enable us to respond immediately,” said Dr McBride. “Our health service is used to managing infections and would assure the public that we are prepared.
“Our advice to the public remains the same. Members of the public who have visited affected regions and have symptoms are advised to self-isolate at home and contact their GP in the first instance. Advice will then be given on next steps, including testing if required.”
Mr Harris spoke to the North’s health minister, Robin Swann, in the wake of the diagnosis.
“We must do everything we can to remain vigilant in the event of a case of Covid-19 emerging,” Mr Harris said.
“Cross border communication and co-operation is vital in that regard.
“Giving the evolving situation this first case of Covid-19 disease was not unexpected. The National Public Health Emergency Team has been planning for this scenario since January.”
Tony Holohan, chief medical officer in the Department of Health, said the HSE is “well-prepared” for a potential outbreak. They are working “to inform any contacts the patient had in order to prevent transmission”.
“Covid-19 is spread through close contact with an infected person’s body fluids, or by touching surfaces that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on,” said Dr Holohan.
“Close contact involves either face-to-face contact or spending more than 15 minutes within two metres of an infected person. The risk of transmission through casual contact is low.”
Stephen McMahon, chairman and co-founder of the Irish Patients’ Association, urged people to listen to instructions from the health authorities to protect themselves, their families and community.
“I’m not surprised. We wish the patient well. However, it is a call to action,” he said.
Fears over the spread of the virus have caused a rush on the sale of protective facemasks and antibacterial hand sanitiser, with several large pharmacy chains reporting low stocks.
HSE boss Paul Reid has confirmed there are adequate stocks of critical supplies, though.
The HSE acted early in dealing with what is a “very volatile” market, he said, purchasing 700,000 protective gowns, 4m gloves, and 1.5m surgical masks.
“Over 100 people have been tested with a particular surge in the recent few days but, thankfully, none positive to date,” said Mr Reid.
Additional reporting: Evelyn Ring, Conall Ó Fátharta, and Eoin English.