Doctor linked to Campbellton COVID-19 outbreak was planning to leave his practice

The doctor at the centre of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Campbellton region was planning to leave his practice before the outbreak started, according to the head of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick.

Dr. Jean Robert Ngola had tendered his resignation to the Campbellton Regional Hospital, effective Aug. 1, said Dr. Ed Schollenberg, the registrar of the provincial licensing body for doctors.

It was dated May 19, said Schollenberg, who was copied on a May 21 letter from the hospital, accepting Ngola's resignation.

The first case in the COVID-19 cluster was publicly reported on May 21. Before then, it had been two weeks since the province had an active case of the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

There are now 15 people infected, including two new cases announced Wednesday, someone in their 40s and someone in their 60s.

One case is linked to a close contact of "a previously identified case," Public Health said in a news release, and the other one is linked to the Manoir de la Vallée, a long-term care facility in Atholville, where five elderly patients in an Alzheimer's unit and a personal support worker previously tested positive.

A Quebec resident has also tested positive and is linked to the Manoir, but this case will be counted in Quebec's statistics.

Five people remain in hospital, including one in intensive care.

Schollenberg doesn't know what Ngola's plans were after roughly seven years of practising in Campbellton. But a doctor who gives up their hospital privileges can no longer practise in the province, he said.

Nine days after giving his notice, Ngola, who is also known as Ngola Monzinga and as Jean Robert Ngola Monzinga, was suspended by the Vitalité Health Network. The province has since asked the RCMP to investigate a trip he took to Quebec and his failure to self-isolate to determine whether charges are warranted.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

Ngola, in his first media interview since the outbreak started, told Radio-Canada's program La Matinale on Tuesday he's not sure whether he picked up the coronavirus during the trip to Quebec or from a patient in his office.

He made an overnight return trip to Quebec to pick up his four-year-old daughter because her mother had to travel to Africa for her own father's funeral, he said.

Maybe it was an error in judgment. Who hasn't made an error in judgment? - Jean Robert Ngola

He drove straight there and back with no stops and had no contact with anyone, he said, and none of his family members had any COVID-19 symptoms at the time.

He did not self-isolate upon returning, he said. He went to work at the Campbellton Regional Hospital the next day.

"Maybe it was an error in judgment," said Ngola, pointing out that workers, including nurses who live in Quebec, cross the border each day with no 14-day isolation period required.

"Who hasn't made an error in judgment?" he said.

Ngola said he decided to speak out because he's become the target of racist verbal attacks daily and false reports to police, and he feels abandoned by Public Health officials.

Emailing every day but no complaint

Schollenberg said he was advised by Vitalité of Ngola's suspension the same day it took effect but was not given any information about the reason.

"It wasn't until it became widely know that we found out what this was related to," he said. "I know what I know from the media."

Although Schollenberg has received "a few [emails] every day since all of this started" from citizens calling on the college to suspend Ngola, he said he can't practise anywhere in the province while he's suspended by Vitalité.

The college can't launch an investigation without a formal complaint, said Schollenberg. Usually, it's a patient who files such a complaint.

"That still might happen, I don't know. It's perfectly open for somebody, if they think he was the source of their infection, they could complain to us."

But the college would have limited access to information from the hospital, he said.

The college could also generate its own complaint, said Schollenberg. "But on the other hand, if you're going to complain, you've got to have some facts. And the only information I have is either the stuff that's on social media or the stuff that's been reported."

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

Twelve of the province's 15 cases have been linked to the travel-related case to date, Public Health officials have said. One case remains under investigation.

The policy for any health-care workers who travel outside the province for any reason is to self-isolate for 14 days, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Jennifer Russell, has said. "It is mandatory."

Ngola did not say during Tuesday's interview what he told officials at the New Brunswick border about his reason for travel, or what they told him about requirements to self-isolate upon entering the province.

Nor did he indicate what, if any, followup he had from border officials.

CBC News has been unable to reach him to clarify. His voice mailbox is full.

On Tuesday, he said he received a call from a Public Health official on May 25 informing him a patient he had seen on May 19 had tested positive for COVID-19.

He cancelled his shift at the hospital that night and got a test for himself and his daughter, he said. Neither of them were showing symptoms, but they both tested positive.

Campbellton ER to reopen Friday

The Campbellton Regional Hospital, which has been "basically shut down" since May 27 when a third case was confirmed, will gradually reopen, starting with the emergency department, the Vitalité Health Network announced on Wednesday.

The ER is scheduled to reopen on Friday, but only between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

"We have sufficient nursing staff and physicians to partially reopen," president and CEO Gilles Lanteigne said in a statement.

Whenever possible, Vitalité asks people to contact their family doctor, nurse practitioner or Tele- Care 811 before going to the emergency department, he said.

The situation will be reassessed early next week.

"I want to reassure the public that all control measures are in place to ensure the safety of patients and staff in the emergency department and throughout the facility," said Lanteigne.

Ambulatory care services and non-urgent, or elective, surgeries, remain suspended, but will also be reassessed early next week, he said.