New Brunswick·THE FIFTH ESTATE

Tracing N.B. doctor's steps and contacts casts doubt on whether he was source of spring COVID-19 outbreak

Dr. Jean Robert Ngola has been blamed as the source of a COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton, N.B., but an investigation by CBC’s The Fifth Estate and Radio-Canada reveals contact tracing information that casts doubt on the certainty with which Ngola was identified as "patient zero," and points to dozens of other people who could have brought the virus into the community.

Dr. Jean Robert Ngola says accusations that he caused outbreak that killed 2 put his own life at risk

Dr. Jean Robert Ngola was singled out as the source of a COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton, N.B., in the spring, but an investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate and Radio-Canada casts increasing doubt on whether he was 'patient zero.' (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

Within an hour of finding out he had tested positive for coronavirus in May, Dr. Jean Robert Ngola was being blamed as the source of a COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton, N.B., after his confidential health information was leaked on social media. 

But an investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate and Radio-Canada reveals new contact tracing information that casts doubt on the certainty with which Ngola was identified as "patient zero" in the outbreak that resulted in more than 40 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths, and points to dozens of other people in the northern New Brunswick community who could have brought the virus into the area.

Ngola's legal team also showed CBC documents that indicate some of the people with whom Ngola came in contact during a trip to Quebec did not have the virus. Ngola had travelled to the neighbouring province in early May to pick up his four-year-old daughter without informing the hospital where he worked and did not self-isolate upon his return.

"We'll fight it on the facts — because on the facts, Jean Robert was not wrong," said Joël Étienne, Ngola's lawyer.

Ngola has since left Campbellton after enduring weeks of threats that he says drove him from the town he called home for seven years, which lies across the Restigouche River from Pointe-à-la-Croix, Que. He had more than 2,000 patients at his family clinic and also worked shifts at the Campbellton Regional Hospital emergency room.

Campbellton Regional Hospital employs 90 health workers who live in Quebec. More than 20 per cent of its patients are also from Quebec. (Serge Bouchard/Radio-Canada)

At the time of the outbreak, Ngola was only seeing his clinic patients virtually but was treating patients in person in the ER.

"You can go to Campbellton and ask what kind of physician is Dr. Ngola. I love this population, but in one day everything was destroyed," said Ngola, 50, who has medical degrees from Congo, Belgium and Laval University in Quebec City.

No symptoms

In a two-hour interview, Ngola answered questions about his reasons for travelling to Quebec, and described the extent of the racist attacks he endured and the betrayal he said he felt at the hands of his employer and the province.

The Congolese-Canadian doctor found out he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus in a phone call from public health authorities around 11 a.m. on May 27. He was shocked because he didn't have any symptoms. One hour later, his clinic staff informed him that his positive virus result was leaked on Facebook and he was being called "patient zero."

At the daily 2:30 p.m. provincial pandemic update that day, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs confirmed three new coronavirus cases, including a child, a man in his 90s and an "irresponsible medical professional." The premier didn't name Ngola but publicly accused the unnamed "medical professional" of hiding his reasons for travel and breaking the rules by not self-isolating after his trip.

Two hours later, his employer, the Vitalité Health Network, suspended Ngola without pay via email. Another public health nurse called Ngola at 5 p.m. and informed him his daughter was also positive for the coronavirus.

By the end of the week, spurred by a complaint by the province and Vitalité, the RCMP began investigating Ngola for criminal wrongdoing. 

The doctor blames a rush to judgment by the premier and his employer for tarnishing his reputation and putting him at risk. 

Lawyer Joël Étienne is representing Ngola and says the province rushed to judgment when it pinned an outbreak on him. (Jean-François Benoît/CBC)

"It's more than racism — they put my life in danger," said Ngola. 

His employer, however, says the physician violated the hospital's COVID-19 protocols. Vitalité provided CBC with a copy of a self-assessment checklist emailed to all employees on April 6 that specified that anyone who travelled outside of New Brunswick — except those who commute from Quebec or Maine — had to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.

Ngola said he received the email but that "there was a lot of confusion," and other doctors he worked with had not self-isolated after travelling out of province.

"I took precautions," he said of his trip.

Disparaged on social media

Once his case was made public, Ngola was called a "disease" on Facebook and told to "go back to Africa." One Campbellton resident posted a comment saying Ngola should be "lynched and dragged back across the bridge," referring to the span between Campbellton and Pointe-à-la-Croix, Que.

Meanwhile, photos of his home were splashed online. 

Residents called 911 with false reports that the doctor was seen shopping at Walmart. Ngola said police officers showed up at his door to ensure he wasn't violating his quarantine. 

Unnerved by the invasion of his privacy, Ngola said he didn't feel safe and "hid in the basement" with his child. 

"I have the fear in my belly. I don't know what can happen," he said. "You know some person — [if] mentally, they are not correct — they can come to do something. And I was alone with my daughter."

At the time he tested positive, Ngola was only seeing patients virtually in his clinic but thinks he contracted the virus earlier from a patient while working in the Campbellton Regional Hospital ER.

"The pandemic is a war, and the physician is the first line," he said. "We see patients who are asymptomatic."

Currently on the campaign trail, Higgs brushed off criticism that singling out Ngola — even in a roundabout way — was reckless. 

"I had no knowledge of the individual until it appeared in social media," he said. "The concern I had throughout this pandemic is that we have to be conscious, we rely heavily on our medical professionals. It was disappointing because it resulted in a situation where we had two fatalities."

No criminal charges but could face fine

On May 30, the provincial government and Vitalité asked the RCMP to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing by Ngola. After a six-week investigation, police decided against laying criminal charges, but Ngola could still face a hefty provincial fine for violating the Emergency Measures Act by not self-isolating for 14 days after travel. He is set to appear in provincial court in Campbellton on Oct. 26.

WATCH: Ngola describes the effect of the leak of his personal information:

Within an hour of finding out he was COVID-positive, he was attacked on social media. 1:27

The former lead investigator into the Walkerton tainted water scandal says he is in Ngola's corner. Craig Hannaford, a former RCMP officer who is now a private investigator with the firm Haywood Hunt and Associates in Toronto and was hired by Ngola's lawyer, spent a month retracing the physician's overnight trip to Montreal looking for evidence that could prove Ngola didn't pick up the virus in Quebec.

Hannaford said he identified several health workers who were crossing into Quebec from Campbellton and not isolating upon their return around the same time as Ngola. 

"The long arm of the state seems to be pointing fingers [at Ngola], saying: 'You did it.' Yet there seems to be all sorts of explanations as to how this happened," said Hannaford.

He said his investigation took one month compared to the few hours it took New Brunswick Public Health to zero in on Ngola.

"That's not a fair and balanced investigation," he said. 

Anatomy of a trip

When Ngola met the The Fifth Estate team in Quebec, along with his lawyer, they provided more information about his reasons for the trip to Quebec and the precautions he took.

In early May, Ngola said, he was in a conundrum. He was asked by his ex-partner, who lives in Montreal, to take care of their four-year-old daughter while she flew to Africa to attend her father's funeral. Ngola had shifts at the Campbellton ER that he was concerned management couldn't backfill. So he asked his younger brother, who is a student in Montreal, to look after the child for five days while he figured out how to pick her up. 

Unsure of the rules under the provincial Emergency Measures Act, Ngola called the RCMP before his trip, who directed him to the New Brunswick COVID hotline. 

Ngola said the operator told him that as an essential worker, he did not have to self-isolate upon his return.

CBC found conflicting information on New Brunswick government websites about who needs to self-isolate when returning to the province. On one site outlining travel guidelines, a section labelled "People not required to self-isolate" lists healthy residents who must cross the border to access required goods and services, patients accessing medical care and parents with a shared custody of children.

Ngola also called the Quebec COVID hotline for advice. He said the person who answered reminded him to bring a letter that showed he had permission to take his child across the border. He doesn't have recordings of his conversations but said his cellphone logs prove he made those calls. 

The J.C. Van Horne Bridge spans the Restigouche River and connects Campbellton, N.B., to Pointe-à-la-Croix, Que. (Serge Bouchard/Radio-Canada)

On his 30-hour round trip, Ngola said he encountered a total of five people: his daughter, his brother, two doctors and a gas station clerk.

On May 12, Ngola left Campbellton after his ER shift ended at 4 p.m. He gassed up his car and drove nearly nine hours without stopping to Montreal. After a brief conversation with his brother, he went to sleep. The next morning, he left the city with his daughter around 9 a.m.

Ngola said he had a previously scheduled conference call with two doctors in Trois-Rivières on May 13 but decided to meet with them in person since he was passing through the town.

They met for 20 minutes, wearing masks and gloves, and sat two metres apart. They discussed a potential job for Ngola at their clinic. The only other stop Ngola said he made on this journey was at a gas station in La Pocatière, Que. 

After filling up, he went inside to pay for the fuel and some food before crossing into New Brunswick near Edmundston around 6 p.m. 

Ngola said he told peace officers at the border checkpoint that he was a doctor and that he had travelled overnight to pick up his daughter. He said he was given a pamphlet with general instructions about self-isolating. By 9 p.m., he was back home in Campbellton.  

Craig Hannaford, a former RCMP officer who is now a private investigator, spent one month retracing Ngola's overnight trip to Montreal to look for evidence that he didn't get COVID-19 in Quebec. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

Unlikely but not impossible

Hannaford said the Trois-Rivières doctors did not contract the virus, nor did Ngola's younger brother.

The Fifth Estate was unable to reach the doctors for comment but has seen the brother's negative test result. The 36-year-old was tested at the Hôpital Maisonneuve-Rosemont in Montreal three days after Ngola's own nasal swab. 

CBC also asked Dalhousie University epidemiologist Dr. Karina Top, who studies infectious disease and vaccine efficacy, to review the information. The physician said it's unlikely, but not impossible, that Ngola contracted the virus on his brief trip.

"Overall, it's a short time, and he was in contact with a small number of people," Top said. "So it would seem like the risk would be reasonably low as to have been in contact with COVID-19. But it's not impossible."

Top said the public should be informed when they come in contact with someone who is infected, but she's alarmed by the privacy breach in Ngola's case. 

"It's also counterproductive to public health efforts, because it means other people will see what he went through and may be less likely to get tested if they have mild symptoms," she said. "And if they are found to have COVID, they may be less likely to be forthcoming and honest about where they've been and who they've been with out of fear that they will face the same stigma." 

The investigation by Hannaford also points to a government worker in Campbellton as the potential source of the leak. 

Social media posts reviewed by The Fifth Estate suggest that Ngola was identified on Facebook by someone who said their spouse was on "the COVID-19 monitoring team." The person did not respond to Facebook requests for an interview. 

Daycare contact

New Brunswick had just recorded two straight weeks without a coronavirus case when the outbreak publicly linked to Ngola forced the Restigouche region back into a partial lockdown just five days after the province loosened restrictions. 

The first sign of the outbreak came on May 21. Public health authorities announced a child in Campbellton tested positive for the virus. 

Two other cases quickly followed. On May 27, New Brunswick's chief public health officer, Jennifer Russell, announced that a person in their 90s and a medical worker had also tested positive. 

At the time, she also said it was mandatory for health professionals to self-isolate after leaving the province and later lamented that the outbreak had been "preventable."

Ngola was the medical worker, and the other person was a man who was one of his patients and had stopped by his clinic a few days earlier to ask for a prescription refill. Ngola said he filled the order while remaining physically distanced and wore a mask.

The boy who tested positive happened to also have spent one day at the same daycare that Ngola's daughter attended, Garderie les Bouts et Choux, and one parent is a nurse who works at Campbellton Regional Hospital. 

Hours after Ngola's name was leaked on the internet, residents started calling 911 with false reports that he was breaking his quarantine. RCMP were dispatched to his Campbellton home to ensure he was self-isolating. (Serge Bouchard/ Radio-Canada)

Daycare operator Cecile Castonguay said she doesn't blame Ngola for the outbreak. 

"I don't know if the boy gave the virus to [Ngola's] daughter or if his daughter gave it to the boy. How can anyone know?" said Castonguay.

CBC News has learned, and Vitalité confirmed, that the nurse shares custody of the boy with a parent who lives on the Quebec side of the Restigouche River. 

Vitalité says 90 employees, or nearly 10 per cent of its hospital staff, live in Pointe-à-la-Croix and cross the bridge to Campbellton daily. More than 20 per cent of patients who visit the ER at Campbellton Regional Hospital are from Quebec.

Because of staff shortages, hospitals in northern New Brunswick rely heavily on doctors from outside the province. CBC had previously reported that 22 doctors who worked for the Vitalité Health Network, including nine in the Campbellton region, did not fully self-isolate after travelling out of province.

No apology owed, says employer

Despite initially warning that 150 people might have been at risk of infection, the head of the hospital network admits he doesn't know if Ngola was the source of the spring outbreak.

"At Vitalité, we don't know if he's patient one, zero, four or five. We're not privy to that information" said Gilles Lanteigne, Vitalité's CEO. 

Lanteigne said he didn't bow to political pressure but acted because the physician had violated the hospital's COVID-19 protocols. 

Christian Michaud, a constitutional lawyer in Moncton, is a member of Ngola's legal team. (Nicolas Steinbachs/Radio-Canada)

"I don't think I owe Dr. Ngola an apology ... that decision was done quickly based on the fact that Dr. Ngola had not informed us that he was leaving the province and that after he came back he didn't self-isolate." 

Ngola's lawyer, Étienne, said his client took all the necessary precautions and is being scapegoated and arbitrarily punished for what was a common practice among the public and medical staff. During the outbreak, at least 10 hospital employees, including at least one other doctor, contracted the virus, but only Ngola's name leaked out.

"This is all about the arbitrariness of making rules when there were no rules, making them on the fly — and deciding that one person is guilty," said Étienne.

WATCH: Lawyer sees lasting impact of leak of Ngola's health information:

Joel Etienne says Ngola will face consequences for the rest of his life. 1:14

The most recent addition to Ngola's defence team is Christian Michaud, a constitutional expert based in Moncton who says Ngola's charter rights were violated by the premier when he de facto identified him as patient zero.

"This is a public interest case. It involves the premier who has prejudged the case," he said. "I'm very concerned about what I'm observing in terms of breaches of basic fundamental principles of charter rights. For example, the presumption of innocence, the right to remain silent, the right not to suffer any abuses of power." 

Ngola is focused on building a fresh start at a clinic in Louiseville, Que.

He said his suspension and the threats prevented him from helping his patients transition to a new doctor and drove him out of Campbellton before he could sell his house. But he has received more than 200 letters and emails of support from across Canada. Many are from strangers. 

Louiseville has a shortage of doctors and has embraced Ngola with open arms, he said, allowing him the opportunity to see his daughter more often without crossing provincial borders.

WATCH | The Fifth Estate's Judy Trinh traces the fallout of Dr. Ngola's COVID-19 diagnosis:

A doctor alleged to have been "patient zero" in a fresh COVID-19 outbreak in New Brunswick talks to CBC News about what happened, the racist attacks he faced and the evidence he says shows he didn’t cause the outbreak. 5:46

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

About the Author

Judy Trinh

CBC Reporter

Judy Trinh is a veteran journalist with CBC's The Fifth Estate. She covers a diverse range of stories from breaking crime news to the #MeToo movement to human rights court challenges. Judy aims to be both critical and compassionate in her reporting. Follow her on Twitter @judyatrinh Email: Judy.Trinh@cbc.ca

With files from Mia Sheldon, Nicolas Steinbach, Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon

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