Doctor disputes he's 'patient zero' in Campbellton COVID-19 outbreak, seeks apology

The doctor being blamed for the COVID-19 outbreak in the Campbellton region says he has evidence he's not "patient zero," and he's seeking a public apology from New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs.

Private investigators for Dr. Jean Robert Ngola contend that he "could not have been the first patient" and that his trip to Quebec was not the source, according to his lawyer, Joël Etienne.

During Ngola's overnight round trip to retrieve his four-year-old daughter during the week of May 10, he interacted with only a few people — all of whom have since tested negative for COVID-19, said Etienne.

"Dr. Ngola must have therefore contracted the virus from a vector in New Brunswick; and, therefore, he cannot have been the individual who carried the virus over the border," he wrote in a letter to the premier Wednesday.

Based on the coronavirus's incubation period of up to two weeks, the senior private investigator concluded Ngola was infected in New Brunswick by either a patient or a colleague.

But Ngola, who is from Congo, has suffered a "barrage of threats … online racial attacks, local harassment and racial slurs" since May 27, when Higgs announced the case at a news conference, according to Etienne.

He has had to seek police protection because he fears for his safety and that of his daughter, said Etienne, noting Ngola survived the Congolese genocide that claimed millions of lives and has "seen the worst of what humanity can bring about."

There are 28 active cases of COVID-19 in the Campbellton region, including two new confirmed cases announced on Thursday, both health-care workers at the Campbellton Regional Hospital.

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

Many of the other cases in the region, also known as Zone 5, are residents and employees at the Manoir de la Vallée, a long-term care home for seniors in Atholville. Resident Daniel Ouellette, 84, was the first person in the province to die from the illness last Thursday.

The outbreak forced the region back into the stricter orange phase of pandemic recovery while the rest of the province has moved on to a looser level of the yellow phase.

The lone active case of COVID-19 in the Moncton region — a temporary foreign worker in their 20s — is unrelated to the Campbellton outbreak, according to the chief medical officer of health.

Higgs has never publicly named Ngola for the Campbellton cluster. He did blame the resurgence of the coronavirus in the province, after more than two weeks of no cases, on an "irresponsible" medical professional who travelled to Quebec for personal reasons, "was not forthcoming about their reasons for travel upon returning to New Brunswick" and didn't self-isolate.

"If you ignore the rules, you put your family, your friends and your fellow New Brunswickers at risk," Higgs said at the news conference. "Today's case is evidence of that."

Government of New Brunswick
Government of New Brunswick

In his 11-page letter, Etienne calls the premier's "rushed judgment" about Ngola's actions and "disparaging comments" about him "grossly unfair."

"You personally expressed anger toward Dr. Ngola, labelling him irresponsible and assured the public that the RCMP were being instructed to consider laying charges if warranted, all without any formal evidence or an investigation having been completed," writes Etienne, a Toronto-based lawyer.

"These destructive Trumpian comments were premature, careless, showed a blatant disregard for the separation of powers, and have ultimately caused irreparable damage to Dr. Ngola's reputation and career."

Etienne wants Higgs to publicly call for "civility and respect" in the public discourse of all matters relating to Ngola, who is also known as Jean Robert Ngola Monzinga and as Ngola Monzinga.

"A racialized Canadian, Dr. Ngola was singled out by the premier of New Brunswick, publicly shamed and outed in social media, contrary to the privacy laws that were enacted to protect him as a patient," the lawyer alleges in the letter.

Premier stands by comments

On Thursday afternoon, Higgs told reporters he had not yet read the lengthy letter, but he stood by his comments.

"At no time did I identify or make any specific reference, other than that the individual was a health-care worker," he said. "I was careful not to make any particular identification. I know that later that came out, but it certainly wasn't through any activity in my office or myself. It became a local issue and that's kind of where it stands."

At no point did he suggest the individual was patient zero, either, he said.

I am quite comfortable in the position that I've taken.… And if the facts are all on the table, I am sure that others will be clear as well. - Premier Blaine Higgs

"I can see how you get to that implication," he acknowledged, referring to the repeated messaging at the COVID-19 news conferences when new cases were referred to as being linked to the travel-related case. "But it wasn't something that I said."

"I think I did make reference that there was not exactly full disclosure at the border on certainly one occasion, as reported by our safety compliance officers.

"So I'll leave it at that and let the investigation bear out the reality."

Comfort with health services crucial

Higgs remarked it's unfortunate the issue appears to have turned into a "blame game" instead of bringing awareness to personal actions.

"In this pandemic, we can't be overly cautious and particularly, you know, in the health-care field, ensuring that our health-care workers are protected, that patients going into our facilities feel that they're protected. Because it's just extremely important that there's a comfort level there on both sides."

Asked whether his use of the word "irresponsible" in describing the medical professional's actions was part of the blame game, Higgs replied, "I didn't make any implication of what the role was."

He went on to say border officials at checkpoints rely on people to disclose all information honestly and with integrity. Otherwise, "we put everyone at risk."

Higgs said he's bound by privacy rules and limited in what he can say. "But I am quite comfortable in the position that I've taken, how I've spoken about it and the reality of how this situation developed. And if the facts are all on the table, I am sure that others will be clear as well."

Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada
Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada

Public Health officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Vitalité Health Network president and CEO Gilles Lanteigne said he cannot comment on human resources matters, citing confidentiality.

"Furthermore, since this matter is likely to end up in court, Vitalité Health Network is not in a position to comment," he said in an email.

Etienne did not rule out a lawsuit. But he said Ngola realizes New Brunswick is a "very poor province" and he doesn't want to take money away from health care and other services.

"He's not after millions of dollars. … He wants to be reinstated. He want to take care of his patients."

Ngola had a family practice in the region since 2013, with about 2,000 patients, and also works in the Campbellton Regional Hospital's emerg ency department, but he's suspended by Vitalité and under investigation by the RCMP. He cannot practise anywhere in the province while suspended.

The registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick told CBC News last week that Ngola had been planning to leave his practice before the pandemic hit.

He had tendered his resignation to the hospital on May 19, effective Aug. 1.

Etienne dismisses this. "If he wasn't sick, none of this would have happened," he said, without elaborating.

Ngola also wants the private investigator to be given "full transparency" to track who in government allegedly leaked his private health-care information through social media.

Within one hour of being advised by Public Health of his results, Ngola's identity was "outed" on social media, along with his photo — "a disclosure that can only be attributable to Public Health/Health Ministry or any other tentacle of the Government of New Brunswick's Ministry of Health apparatus," Etienne alleges.

Made stop in Trois-Rivières

Ngola went to Quebec to pick up his daughter because her mother had to travel to Africa for her own father's funeral.

Etienne declined to say where in Quebec Ngola went, but the girl's mother had been in self-imposed isolation with the child, who was left with "a guardian" who had also been "keeping in proper isolation," according to the letter.

"While in transit, Dr. Ngola minimized all human-to-human contacts during his sojourn until his re-entry into New Brunswick," the letter states.

He did make a stop in Trois-Rivières, however, where he met with a couple of other doctors at a clinic and discussed work opportunities, said Etienne. They maintained physical distancing, he said.

During an interview with Radio-Canada's program La Matinale on June 2, Ngola had said he drove straight through to pick up his daughter and straight back, with no stops and had no contact with anyone.

EME Professional Corp.
EME Professional Corp.

Etienne declined to disclose what Ngola discussed with border officials about isolation requirements, nor did he offer a reason for why Ngola failed to self-isolate when he got back to New Brunswick.

Ngola returned to work at the Campbellton Regional Hospital the next day.

"Maybe, it was an error in judgment," he told La Martinale.

Etienne clarified by saying Ngola takes the position that his conduct was never professionally or ethically negligent.

"With 20/20 hindsight, he could have been more suspicious of his employer's own protocols and practices, and had he self-quarantined upon his return to Campbellton for two weeks, then of course, he would have been unimpeachable for any false accusation of spreading disease or sickness that would manifest itself in the Restigouche area."

On May 26, Ngola was told by Public Health that one of his patients had tested positive for COVID-19. He was tested that day and isolated with his daughter.

On May 28, Ngola was suspended "with no inquiry, opportunity to comment or participate," according to Etienne.

On May 30, the New Brunswick RCMP received a complaint from the provincial government and Vitalité regarding an individual who "may have violated the mandatory order under the current Emergency Measures Act by travelling outside of N.B., and not following the guidelines of self-isolating upon their return," said spokesperson Cpl. Julie Rogers-Marsh.

RCMP are continuing to investigate to "determine if a violation has occurred," she said on Thursday.

'Credible alternatives'

The private investigator hired by Ngola's lawyer — Craig Hannaford, a retired RCMP officer who once led the Ontario inquiry into the contamination of the town of Walkerton's water supply — proposed "credible alternatives" to the source of infection.

During his investigation, he spoke to "whistleblowers" within the health-care system "who can attest to unclear guidelines and practices that have resulted in many first responder health-care professionals travelling in and out of Campbellton since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic from as far as Montreal to then be reinserted into the Regional Health Unit without self quarantining before attending to patients on their return," according to Etienne's letter.

Serge Bouchard/Radio-Canada
Serge Bouchard/Radio-Canada

The provincial government requires health-care workers who live and work in New Brunswick to self-isolate for 14 days upon return from travel outside the province.

There are exceptions, however. Doctors and nurses who work in New Brunswick but live across the border and commute regularly don't have to isolate, for example.

Out-of-province doctors who fill in on a temporary basis through Vitalité, known as locums, have not been required to fully isolate. But the province's pandemic task force recently issued a directive requiring the regional health authorities to seek isolation exemptions for their locums through WorkSafeNB.

Etienne argued Ngola's actions were "consistent with guidelines and standard daily practices of his colleagues and supervisor/superiors."