Store owner furious with Public Health's response after COVID exposure
Jeff Alpaugh says businesses expected to have detailed, thorough COVID protocols, but Public Health isn't
A Fredericton business owner says he has lost all faith in the Department of Health after a COVID-positive person visited his store earlier this month.
Jeff Alpaugh, owner of Jeff Alpaugh Custom in downtown Fredericton, said he gives more detailed guidance to customers on how to care for their new dress shirts than he received from health officials about what to do after being exposed to a deadly virus.
The information he received in an initial call from someone from Public Health was so "sketchy," Alpaugh thought he was being scammed.
This story is based on detailed notes, emails and texts kept by Alpaugh from the moment he received that first call alerting him that someone in his store had tested positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Jennifer Russell, chief medical officer of health, refused to respond to concerns in an interview but a communications person sent an email statement.
"Public Health has always provided the pertinent information the public needs to take measures to protect themselves," that statement reads.
Alpaugh said that for him, this was not the case.
Day 1, Tuesday, Nov. 3
The Fredericton businessman said it was about 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday when someone claiming to be from Public Health called his store and informed his manager the shop would need to close for 14 days.
Alpaugh was shocked by the lack of information that was exchanged in that first call, with the official refusing to give her last name or to leave a number.
And then she says, 'I can't give you any information about the individual who was in the store because I have to protect their privacy.'- Jeff Alpaugh, Jeff Alpaugh Custom
"We're not going to act on … a random phone call from someone we don't have a last name for," he said.
When the woman called back, Alpaugh spoke with her, and she told him someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 had been in his store that day.
Alpaugh said she was hesitant to give her last name and offered only a general email address and telephone number.
"And she reiterates that we need to close the store down right away, and so I'm, like, 'Well, do we need to close the store down right away or do the people who were exposed need to self -isolate for two weeks?'"
While he was speaking with the official on the phone, Alpaugh said, he was searching online for information about recent cases of COVID-19 in New Brunswick to corroborate what she was saying. His confusion deepened when he saw no new cases had been reported that day, nor the day before.
"And then she says, 'I can't give you any information about the individual who was in the store because I have to protect their privacy.'"
Alpaugh's suspicions grew when he asked her to send him an official email verifying who she was and where she was calling from.
"She says, 'Well, that's not relevant,'" Alpaugh said.
"Well, it's pretty relevant to me. Like, are you calling from Ottawa? Are you in New Brunswick? Is this the Nigerian prince scam?'"
That's when she told him she had to go and might be able to send an email later that evening.
With no details from government, Alpaugh investigates
That evening, a confused Alpaugh called a local journalist as he tried to figure out whether there had been a new case of COVID-19 that the news media hadn't reported.
Then he called his lawyer trying to determine whether it was a scam, whether his staff could go home, and whether he needed to close his store.
Small businesses do get scammed all the time, so you would think a government department would consider the receiver of the message.- Jeff Alpaugh, Jeff Alpaugh Custom
"[My staff] don't want to go home and infect their family. There's a lot of things to figure out. They're also doing a big, deep clean of the store."
Alpaugh was attending meetings and not in his store that day. Even so, with two small children at home, including an infant, and his 70-year-old mother-in-law, he was worried about being exposed indirectly. He didn't want to ignore the call if it was legitimate.
"Small businesses do get scammed all the time, so you would think a government department would consider the receiver of the message," Alpaugh said.
"Walk in my shoes and craft and deliver the message in an appropriate manner."
In such a serious situation, Alpaugh expected an official letter with a high-ranking signature, contact information and "actual instructions."
When asked what kinds of instructions are provided to businesses in the case of a COVID exposure, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said "each situation is unique" but typically they are called and a letter is sent.
"Businesses are provided as much information as possible without compromising individual privacy."
Alpaugh said he needed to know who it was who tested positive in his store, so he and his staff could determine how close they had been and for how long.
Measuring a client for a custom suit means you are very close for an extended period of time.
Throughout the evening, with no further contact from Public Health or WorkSafeNB, Alpaugh continued his own detective work.
Since the call advising him of the exposure in his store came from a Saint John number, he texted one of two people from Saint John who had been in that day and asked if he was the one.
"I got a phone call from Public Health today saying someone entered my store today who later tested positive for COVID. The caller is from [Saint John]. I am trying to determine if the call was legit. Did you … test positive today," he wrote.
The person texted back, "Hey I did not."
'You'll never believe it, but actually it was legit'
The evening wore on with no further phone calls or emails from Public Health.
To confuse the situation ever more, Alpaugh contacted a government employee he knew. He said that person assured him the government would "never give you a phone call like that" on COVID-19, and then suggested he contact the police about what sounded like "a personal target attack."
"Then an hour later, he calls back and goes, 'You'll never believe it, but actually it was legit.'"
By the time Alpaugh got off the phone it was about 9:45 p.m., and he finally saw an email from the woman who originally called him.
"It's from that generic account she gave me. It's not a signed PDF or official letterhead … like I'd requested. There's no detailed instructions, no information I can really use."
The three-sentence email from Saint John Public Health was sent at 7:02 p.m. and asked that Alpaugh close his store for 24 hours and do "routine cleaning" and that his two staff members who were exposed isolate for 14 days.
At 8:28 p.m. he received another email from the Saint John region's medical officer of health, Dr. Kim Barker.
Barker asked Alpaugh to close his store for 24 hours "to permit enhanced cleaning," and for him to "support the requirement of your two staff to remain on self-isolation for 14 days."
Barker states in that email that the privacy of the COVID-positive person needs to be protected.
At the end of Day 1, Alpaugh still had no details from the Department of Health about who had tested positive and was therefore unable to narrow down which customers might have been exposed to COVID-19 or how close his staff were to the infected person.
Day 2, Wednesday, Nov. 4
After a sleepless night, on Wednesday, Alpaugh started contacting every client who was in the store the day before to let them know they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
"I was like, I'll give you this information because I have it, but nobody's told me what that actually means for you," he told them.
"There's no instructions. Who is doing the contact tracing? And if contact tracing is not required, why isn't it required? And when are they going to interview my staff and get their version of events? Like nobody's asked my staff any questions."
That afternoon a news release from the Health Department said one person, 20 to 29 years old, had tested positive with COVID in the Saint John region. It said the case is "related to travel outside of the Atlantic bubble" and the person is "self-isolating."
Later that day, Alpaugh said, the Saint John person who visited his store the day before, and who initially denied being infected, finally admitted he was COVID-positive.
Alpaugh was bothered by the fact the government release said the person was self-isolating, with no alert that he had been travelling around the province the day before. He described the news release as "purposely deceptive" about the whereabouts of an infectious individual.
"I don't know how many businesses he visited, but it seems unlikely he only visited me. [He] didn't go to a coffee shop? Didn't go to a McDonald's? Didn't go to a Walmart? Didn't go to a Costco?
"At this point I'm, like, 'What are the chances that mine is the only business that he came into? Probably zero.' And I haven't heard anything about anything else."
Alpaugh said he found the lack of information and transparency from Public Health "super disturbing."
Medical officer of health calls
At about 5 p.m. on Wednesday, more than 24 hours after the original phone call, Alpaugh received an email from Barker saying she had tried calling him three times but he didn't pick up the phone.
"Well, she's calling me from a no caller ID number," Alpaugh said. "I don't pick up no caller ID numbers. If you're in 2020 nobody does."
Despite his frustrations and intense stress, Alpaugh said, the conversation goes well and Barker apologizes, is empathetic, and talks to him about how the Department of Health can improve future communication. That call ends with a plan for Alpaugh and Barker to meet with a representative from WorkSafe NB the next day.
Since finding out about the COVID exposure in his store, Alpaugh said he still has not received any written or official information regarding what he and his employees should do, how he should advise his customers, nor details on contact tracing or testing.
CBC News requested an interview with Dr. Kim Barker but the Department of Health refused.
A spokesperson told CBC News that guidance for employers can be found on the government's COVID-19 website and on WorkSafeNB website's frequently-asked questions section.
Alpaugh said it's "infuriating" that government officials expect small businesses like his to have detailed COVID plans but don't seem to have a detailed plan of their own to adequately support business people who are trying to navigate a COVID exposure.
"If you want to see my small business COVID plan, it is like the most nauseating legal document ever," he said. "It is so long and so thorough. These guys send me a one-liner email from the iPhone and that's all I got. But I'm supposed to have every 'I' dotted and every 'T' crossed?"
Day 3, Thursday, Nov. 5
By day three, Alpaugh said, his stress level had only escalated. He hadn't slept more than three hours for the past two nights.
His staff were at home self-isolating while he single-handedly operated his business. Alpaugh's employees have not been interviewed by contact tracers.
"The only reason we didn't have to close for 14 days is I was able to personally run the store."
With the required 24-hour closure, and having to replace his two employees, Alpaugh estimated he lost $10,000 during the critical holiday season.
While Public Health officials have called every day to ensure his employees are self-isolating and asking whether they have symptoms, no further investigation has happened to Alpaugh's knowledge.
He called Barker and told her he is "losing faith in her and the government completely."
"And I just can't sleep at night. I just can't sleep."
Staff denied COVID testing
Alpaugh said that in every phone call he had with government officials, he asked that he and his staff be tested for COVID.
I think incompetent management is giving incompetent orders to incompetent people.- Jeff Alpaugh, Jeff Alpaugh Custom
Every day, his employees have submitted the online form requesting a test and have been told it won't be available for more than a week.
"That is the most upsetting of this whole thing," he said.
Eventually his staff were both tested 10 days after the exposure, on Friday, Nov. 13. They both received negative results.
Now two weeks later, Alpaugh said, officials from the Department of Health still haven't told him anything about who tested positive in his store that day. Nor have contact tracers called him and his staff.
He worries that the lack of information he has been able to share with his customers reflects badly on him.
"I deal solely on my reputation of integrity and I can't compromise it for the government, who isn't even being honest with me. They're not even telling me the truth and letting me in on anything."
A balance between 'alarmism and transparency'
Alpaugh believes that when it comes to sharing information, the government's pendulum swung too far to the side of privacy after people found out Dr. Jean Robert Ngola was the health care professional Premier Blaine Higgs blamed for the first COVID outbreak in the province.
"I appreciate that maybe the government handled the doctor in Campbellton privacy issue poorly, but it doesn't justify overcorrecting the other way," said Alpaugh.
"A professional organization needs to find that balance between alarmism and transparency. And it's not at odds with integrity. It's just not."
Alpaugh believes a threat to people in Fredericton has gone unreported and that has kept him awake at night.
"I think incompetent management is giving incompetent orders to incompetent people."
"I give more detailed instructions to a client when I tell them to come and pick up their dress shirt."