The doctor at the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Campbellton, N.B., area says he’s not sure whether he picked up the coronavirus during a trip to Quebec or from a patient in his office.
Dr. Jean Robert Ngola made the comments to Radio-Canada’s program La Matinale on Tuesday morning — his first media interview since the emergence of 13 new cases in the northern New Brunswick health region starting May 21. Before then, it had been two weeks since the province had an active case.
Ngola has been suspended by the Vitalite Health Network, one of the province’s two regional health authorities, and the province has asked the RCMP to investigate to determine whether charges are warranted.
He 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.
Ngola, who is also known as Dr. Ngola Monzinga, has been working as a doctor in Campbellton since 2013. He previously practised in Europe and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He said he did not self-isolate after returning from an overnight return trip to Quebec to pick up his four-year-old daughter. Her mother had to travel to Africa for her father’s funeral.
“What was I supposed to do?” he said in French. “Leave her there alone?”
Ngola said he drove straight there and back with no stops and had no contact with anyone. He said none of his family members had any COVID-19 symptoms at the time.
He returned 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. “That’s why I have compassion towards everyone.”
What he told border officials unclear
On May 27, Premier Blaine Higgs announced a COVID-positive “medical professional” in their 50s had travelled to Quebec for personal reasons, was “not forthcoming” about the reasons for their trip upon returning to New Brunswick and “did not self-isolate as a result.”
The medical professional then returned to work at the Campbellton Regional Hospital for two weeks, Higgs had told reporters, describing it as “irresponsible.”
“If you ignore the rules, you put your family, your friends and your fellow New Brunswickers at risk,” Higgs said at the time.
Twelve of the province’s 13 cases have been linked to the travel-related case to date, according to Public Health officials.
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 the morning 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.
When reached by phone later to clarify, Ngola said he was on the other line with his lawyer and hung up. Repeated calls since then have gone straight to voicemail.
‘How many people are unwitting carriers?’
Ngola said he received a call from a public health official on May 25 informing him one of his patients had tested positive.
He has about 2,000 patients at his clinic, about 1,500 of them active.
Ngola had seen the man May 19 for a prescription renewal or something that did not require any touching or a physical exam. He said the man had no COVID-19 symptoms and was wearing a mask.
Ngola said he immediately called the patient, who had cold-like symptoms and was doing OK.
He said he cancelled his shift that night at the hospital and got a test for himself and his daughter. Neither of them were showing symptoms, but they both tested positive.
Ngola said he still doesn’t know how they were infected.
“Who can say? … The virus is circulating everywhere. … How many people are unwitting carriers?”
Hate messages pour in, doctor says
He said one hour after he spoke with hospital and public health officials about his contacts to facilitate the investigation and protect the public, his name, face and address were being advertised all over the internet as “the bad doctor who brought the virus to kill people.”
Ngola said that’s not who he is.
“I only have compassion towards sick patients … the role of doctors is to care, to heal, to help … not to spread viruses.”
There are 13 active in cases in the province — all in the Campbellton health region, known as Zone 5, including a new confirmed case announced on Tuesday.
The person in their 80s is a resident at the Manoir de la Vallee, the long-term care facility in Atholville where four other residents in the Alzheimer’s unit and a staff member have also tested positive.
The staff member, a female personal attendant, had social contact with Ngola on May 20, according to the facility’s owner, Dr. Guy Tremblay.
Five people are now in hospital, one of whom is in intensive care.
Accusatory calls from U.S., Africa, Europe
Ngola said he’s been looking into the people making hateful posts, and most are from outside the region. He said he feels they are trying to incite violence against him because he is black.
He said he’s been getting accusatory calls from people in the United States, Africa and Europe, and people are also making false reports about him to local police.
Ngola said he is not pleased with the way he’s being treated by public officials.
“I’m a patient. I have a right to confidentiality, to protection from the system.”
Health authority CEO appeals for calm
Gilles Lanteigne, the chief executive officer of the Vitalite Health Network, said he was aware of Ngola’s public statements, but could not comment on human resources matters, citing privacy.
“We understand that the situation is difficult for all parties involved and we sympathize with the people who are affected by this affair, either directly or indirectly,” he said in an emailed statement.
“I would like to appeal to everyone to remain calm in these difficult times. It is more important than ever to show respect, tolerance and compassion for one another. This is how we will get through this crisis and come out of it stronger.”
Public Health officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ngola said he remains devoted to serving the community.
“I have a family. I have a right to live. Please, I’m not a criminal.”