Manitoba man questions whether wife's fatal illness was actually early COVID-19 case

Dustin Ens does not know if his late wife had COVID-19, or if he contracted it. But he wants the chance to find out.

Province reviewed past cases of pneumonia in search of unknown COVID-19, but Morden residents want more

Joanne Ens, 24, seen here with her husband, Dustin Ens, died in January 2020 after contracting what was believed to be a form of influenza. Dustin now wonders if it was actually an early case of COVID-19. (Submitted by Dustin Ens)

Dustin Ens does not know if his late wife had COVID-19. Nor does he know if he contracted it.

But he wants the chance to find out — in part, to make things right in the world, he says.

"There's just an unbelievable amount of disrespect and racism happening all across the world towards China" and Asian people because of the coronavirus, which was first detected in China, says the Morden, Man., resident.

"So if we can find definitive proof that this was circulating well before it blew up in Wuhan [in China], I think that's actually a great thing to get to the public."

Besides, he says, Joanne Ens lived her life devoted to love. She wouldn't want her death to incite hate.

"She loved so well. She just loved people."

Joanne Ens was 24 when she died on Jan. 6, just days after contracting what started as — it was believed — some form of influenza. Now Dustin Ens, 26, is not so sure.

He says he and Joanne's family and friends wonder if she actually had COVID-19 — a disease still unheard of at the time. (Manitoba's first presumptive cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 were announced on March 12.)

And they're not alone.

New review of past cases

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization asked countries around the world to review old cases of pneumonia, to see if they were actually unknown cases of COVID-19.

That's because the WHO now thinks the deadly virus might have emerged months earlier than it once thought.

The province of Manitoba says it has already reviewed 18 pneumonia cases, dating back to December 2019. None came back as COVID-19. The province would not say who tested these cases, when, or why.

Some residents of Morden, however, don't want it to stop there.

In December 2019, hundreds of school kids got sick in the southwestern Manitoba city, all at the same time — with everything from strep throat to influenza. 

Parent Shauna Martens says she spent  the winter months reflecting on the intensity and duration of the undiagnosed virus that kept her kids out of school for days.

Now, she says, with the World Health Organization's reassessment of the COVID-19 timeline, it's on her mind again.

"I'm kind of an anxious person that thinks that," she says. "I was, like, waiting for this — and it's like, 'Oh well, maybe we already had it.'"

Morden, Man., parent Shauna Martens wonders what caused an outbreak of flu-like cases in December 2019. 'It wasn't typical,' she says of the symptoms. (Submitted by Shauna Martens)

Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti also wants an answer to that question. Knowledge, he says, is power.

Chakrabarti is an infectious diseases specialist with Trillium Health Partners — a hospital system serving Etobicoke and western Toronto. He welcomes the World Health Organization's call to countries to review past, curious cases.

Going forward, if we are able to see it coming earlier, you might be able to actually contain it.- Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti

"Some people have mentioned, 'Why don't we start looking back for any kind of … signal of unrecognized pneumonia, or undiagnosed viral syndromes, and see if there was a pattern?'" he said. 

"I think it's a great idea. Know your enemy. We really want to know as much as possible, because I think that's going to be one of our biggest weapons in the future."

It's also symbolic, he says, of the trajectory of COVID-19. What we thought to be true — even a month or two ago — isn't necessarily the case anymore.

"For example, it seems ridiculous now, but we were only testing people if they had a travel history to Wuhan, China, right?" he said.

Chakrabarti is clear, however, that influenza strains alone can be "terrible" — sometimes fatally so.

"I wouldn't wish that situation on anybody," he said. "But this is something that happens every single season with influenza."

Extensive reviews of past cases, however, could arm the health system with ammunition when the next "tidal wave" hits, he says.

"Going forward, if we are able to see it coming earlier, rather than mitigating the damage, you might be able to actually contain it."

Antibody testing

The challenge now is to wait for an approved test for antibodies to be available, he said, so that more people who suspect they had COVID-19 can find out the truth, once and for all.

Morden's Shauna Martens says she is willing to be tested "for research" into a vaccine.

Dustin Ens, meanwhile, says he will continue his new life without Joanne, "the best woman in the world."

But he's determined to honour her legacy.

"When we're dealing with something like a pandemic, stresses are high. People are on edge," he said.

"If anyone wants to do anything or ever thinks of Joanne, I just ask that they try to have as much love in their life for their fellow man as possible."

About the Author

Donna Carreiro

CBC Radio Current Affairs Producer

Donna Carreiro is an award-winning producer and journalist, who has worked for more than 26 years with CBC Manitoba. Prior to that, she was a print journalist for a daily newspaper and local magazines. She is drawn to stories of social justice (or injustice) that give a voice to those who most need one. She can be reached at