'Please, I'm not a criminal': N.B. doctor who exposed patients to COVID-19 speaks out

The family doctor who is believed to be behind New Brunswick’s recent cluster of cases has spoken out after becoming the target of both racist verbal attacks and false reports to police.

Dr. Jean Robert Ngola, who is of Congolese descent, said in an interview with Radio-Canada’s La Matinale that he’s not sure if he contracted the disease after a recent trip to Quebec or from a patient.

He recently made the overnight trip to pick-up his four-year-old daughter because her mother had to travel to Africa for her father’s funeral. Throughout the trip to Quebec, he said he made no stops to come into contact with anyone, while none of his family members had any COVID-19 symptoms.

"What was I supposed to do? Leave my little girl there alone?” said Ngola in French. ”I’m not an idiot. I went there and back. ... I just picked up my daughter, put her in the car, and went back. We didn’t make any stops on the route.

"Perhaps it was an error in judgment, but I did not go to Quebec to go to take the virus and come to give it to my patients," he added, while pointing out that workers, such as nurses who live in Quebec, cross the border each day without having to follow a 14-day isolation period.

New Brunswick previously had no active cases after all of its patients had recovered by May 16. But since May 21, they’ve discovered 15 new cases in the Campbellton region, and eight linked to a long-term care facility as of June 3. They’re all part of a cluster that officials believe was started by Ngola, who exposed at least 150 people to the virus in the health-care and community setting.

Instead of following a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period following his trip to Quebec in May, the doctor returned to work the next day and dropped off his daughter at a daycare for children of essential workers. He then continued to see patients during a two-week stretch at Campbellton Regional Hospital in the Restigouche area.

Ngola, who is also known as Dr. Ngola Monzinga, has since been suspended as RCMP and Vitalité Health Network (a New Brunswick health authority) investigate for potential charges.

Ngola said he received a call on May 25 informing him that one of his patients tested positive for COVID-19. They had met May 19, but for reasons that did not require physical contact while the patient had no symptoms and was wearing a mask.

Upon getting the news, Ngola said he cancelled his shift for that night. He and his daughter both tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after, but neither was showing symptoms.

"Who can say? … The virus is circulating everywhere,” Ngola said about how he might have contracted the virus. “How many people are unwitting carriers?"

Ngola said he’s not pleased with how he’s been treated by public officials. He said that one hour after he spoke with public health officials about his close-contacts to help facilitate the investigation and protect the public, he saw his face, name and address broadcast on the internet.

"I'm a patient. I have a right to confidentiality, to protection from the system," Ngola said.

The family doctor said he’s looked into the people behind the hateful posts and said most are from outside the region and are making posts to incite violence against him because he’s black. He’s also received calls from people in Europe, United States and Africa who have been calling him “the bad doctor who brought the virus to kill people."

Even though 90 per cent of the calls are from outside Campbellton, he said there have also been false reports to local police about him trying to leave the area, despite being infected with COVID-19.

“How can I feel safe [in Campbellton]?” Ngola asked. "I have a family. I have a right to live. Please, I'm not a criminal.”

Since Ngola’s interview Tuesday morning, Dr. Chris Goodyear, the president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said in a statement to CBC that the news of racist comments toward Ngola is “disheartening and disgraceful,” while “racism cannot and should not be tolerated."

CBC has also reported through confirmation with the College of Physicians and Surgeons that Ngola on May 19 had tendered his resignation (effective Aug. 1) after roughly seven years of practicing at Campbellton Regional Hospital.

Virus spreads to long-term care facility

As of June 3, there are five resident cases part of the 15-case cluster at the Manoir de la Vallée long-term care facility.

On May 28, a health-care worker at the facility was diagnosed with COVID-19, prompting all staff and residents to get tested. She was in contact with Ngola on May 20, said Dr. Guy Tremblay, the president of Groupe Lokia, which owns the special care home for seniors.

Since then, two other employees have also contracted the virus, one of them being a Quebec resident, therefore that case isn’t under New Brunswick’s statistics.

Premier Blaine Higgs said on Sunday that 10 of the 28 staff members at the special care home left their jobs following the outbreak.

“An outbreak in a senior’s home is everyone’s greatest fear,” said Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health, as COVID-19 continues to have a devastating impact on long-term care facilities nationwide.

The five resident cases at Manoir de la Vallée are in a single Alzheimer’s unit, which houses 18 of its 51 total residents. All other residents who tested negative will still be monitored for 14 days as they self-isolate.

The facility is for independent seniors who don’t have major illnesses that require significant health care, instead they receive assistance for one to three hours a day. Some employees at the facility live in Quebec, but Tremblay said he doesn’t believe any of them are still travelling between provinces following news of the recent cluster.

According to Tremblay, about 100 people were exposed to the health-care worker who was diagnosed May 28. The staff member worked three shifts while contagious until she was diagnosed on Thursday.

"We are lucky because the shifts were at night. This limits the exposure, since night activities are at a minimum," Tremblay said.

Officials were able to link all of the patients after identifying Ngola, whose case was announced on Wednesday in New Brunswick. Higgs called him an “irresponsible individual,” who was “not forthcoming” about the reasons for his trip upon returning to New Brunswick.

Russell said they expect to see more cases in the upcoming weeks, since the incubation period of the virus is about 14 days. All of the close contacts of the family doctor, who travelled to Quebec, are now in self-isolation, said Russell.

Months into the pandemic, no one has yet to die from COVID-19 in New Brunswick.

"We have a two-week period ahead of us where we're going to be watching very very carefully what is happening in that region and also around the province,” said Russell. “We know that people have left that region since the time that there has been transmission of COVID-19."

Of the province’s now 15 active cases, there are five in hospital, including one in intensive care due to the respiratory virus. Social development minister Dorothy Shephard said three of the hospitalized people are residents of Manoir de la Vallée, including the one ICU patient.

Stephanie Anglehart-Paulin, Campbellton’s mayor, said on Friday that it’s worrisome considering the region only has four ICU beds for its population of about 20,000. She, along with many others, believed that the province had freed itself of COVID-19 when all of its then 120 patients had recovered on May 16.

“They’re mad, they’re really peeved,” Anglehart-Paulin said on about the region’s reaction on social media.

“They just can’t believe how someone, who was a professional, could have made that bad of a decision. But everyone makes mistakes. We thought it would never happen to Campbellton, but here we are today, it’s like a horror movie really.”

The emergency department at the Campbellton Regional Hospital is now closed until further notice due to the increased risk of COVID-19, while all non-urgent or elective procedures have been cancelled.

Along with testing those at the long-term care facility, Russell said about 3,000 negative tests were completed over the weekend, when they made a push to test asymptomatic people in the Campbelltown region. The results have informed their decision to go back to only testing people who have at least two-symptoms of COVID-19.

“This is the part of the two-year process until we get a vaccine,” said Russell on Sunday on the future of COVID-19 in New Brunswick.

“We need to be cognisant of the fact that we don’t live on an island. We can’t shut our borders completely and as long there are cases outside of our jurisdiction, we’re always going to be at risk for more clusters and outbreaks.”

On May 28, officials announced that “as a result of the outbreak,” activities previously scheduled to be permitted on May 29 as part of the “Yellow” phase will be delayed by one week to June 5. That includes outdoor public gatherings and indoor religious services of 50 people or fewer, as well as the reopening of gyms, yoga and dance studios, among other activities.

The province’s legislative assembly has also adjourned until June 9, two days after reopening, in order for all members to continue to focus on COVID-19.

On May 28, officials made the decision to move the Campbellton zone back to “Orange,” which prohibits personal services such as barbers and spas from reopening. The entire province moved to the second phase, “Yellow,” on May 22.