Robin Swann was speaking after the announcement that lockdown measures will remain in place across the region until April.
“The figures are moving in the right direction but they started from a very high point this time round and that’s the challenge that we face in the health service,” he told the BBC.
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“We are still supporting more inpatients with Covid today than we were at the peak of the first wave so there would be no point in saying where we will be in a number of weeks time.
“That’s why the Executive builds in regular reviews so we can take stock and take into account where we see the number of inpatients, where we see the transmissibility of the virus, and taking into account new variants as well.”
Some primary school pupils will return to class on March 8.
P1 to P3 children will be the first to return for three weeks, with the impact of that on the pandemic to be watched closely.
“From a health point of view, it’s about seeing a cohort returning for three weeks and allowing us to assess what impact that has had on transmissibility and the R number,” Mr Swann said.
“In regards to which cohorts come back for which period of time, that was very much coming from an educationalist point of view, it’s not something that we were getting involved in.”
Mr Swann said there is a realisation around the Executive table and across Northern Ireland that a measured approach in coming out of lockdown may prevent a future return to lockdown.
“The last thing that anyone round the Executive table, or anyone across Northern Ireland, wants to do is rush out of this lockdown and see us rushing into another one in a few months time,” he added.
The Executive is set to publish a road map out of lockdown on March 1.
On Thursday, ministers agreed some minor relaxations.
On March 8, the numbers able to gather outdoors will increase from six to 10, from no more than two households, and “click and collect” shopping is to be allowed from some outlets previously categorised as non-essential retailers.
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