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Health officer warned RCMP of challenge identifying patient zero in Campbellton COVID outbreak

The medical officer of health in the Campbellton region warned RCMP it would be difficult to identify Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola as patient zero in the outbreak last May that claimed two lives, infected dozens and forced that northern part of New Brunswick back into the orange phase of recovery, court documents reveal.

Dr. Mariane Pâquet resisted co-operating in their investigation, indicating at one point she felt police were trying to “trap” her, according to officers’ notes filed in Campbellton provincial court by Ngola’s defence lawyers.

Ngola is charged with violating the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Act by allegedly failing to self-isolate for 14 days after travelling to Quebec.

He previously told Radio-Canada’s program La Matinale he drove overnight to Quebec to retrieve his four-year-old daughter because her mother had to travel to Africa for a funeral, and he maintains he did nothing wrong.

Defence lawyers are seeking further disclosure from the Crown and submitted as part of their arguments roughly 50 pages of notes, emails and reports of RCMP, government and Vitalité Health Network officials they’ve already received. Some of them are heavily redacted.

The documents reveal how high-ranking government officials worked with RCMP to see an official complaint filed against Ngola after Premier Blaine Higgs announced during a May 27 news conference that a medical professional in their 50s, travelled to Quebec for personal reasons, “was not forthcoming about their reasons for travel upon returning to New Brunswick and they did not self-isolate as a result.”

Higgs never publicly named Ngola but blamed what was then a cluster of COVID-19 cases in the Campbellton region and a resurgence of the coronavirus in the province on the “irresponsible individual” who returned to work at the Campbellton Regional Hospital and treated patients for two weeks.

On May 28, Higgs told reporters information about the case has been passed along to the RCMP to determine exactly what took place and whether charges were warranted.

Health officer warned RCMP of challenge identifying patient zero in Campbellton COVID outbreak
When Premier Blaine Higgs announced the confirmed COVID-19 case of the medical professional on May 27, he said the Campbellton region was now at a higher risk ‘due to the actions of one irresponsible individual.’ (Government of New Brunswick)

That came as a surprise to the officer in charge of the major crime unit at J Division headquarters in Fredericton, according to the documents.

“I noticed the Premier mentioned in the media that the RCMP was taking over the investigation, at that time none of us were aware we were getting involved,” Staff Sgt. Jean-Marc Paré wrote in an email to colleagues on the morning of May 29, asking future communications be co-ordinated with the province.

Even as members of the RCMP unit were headed to Campbellton, Paré said: “We don’t really know who our complainant is.”

Jacques Babin, the executive director of Public Safety, who had been appointed to act as the RCMP’s liaison with the Premier’s Office, was initially going to be the official complainant, according to the defence, based on officers’ notes.

But Andrew Easton, director of security and emergencies at the Department of Justice and Public Safety contacted Gilles Lanteigne, then-CEO of Vitalité on May 29 at 5:29 p.m.

Health officer warned RCMP of challenge identifying patient zero in Campbellton COVID outbreak
Gilles Lanteigne, the former CEO of the Vitalité Health Network, ended up filing the official complaint about Ngola to RCMP on May 30, 2020. Lanteigne announced his retirement a few months later. (Radio-Canada)

“Police services need a complaint before they can begin an investigation,” he wrote in an email in French. “As you have personal knowledge of the issue that affect our health care system, you may wish to advise the RCMP members who are copied on this email of your concerns. Thank you for your attention.”

Const. Martin Primeau of the major crime unit followed up with Lanteigne at 5:38 p.m.

“As discussed today, an official letter requesting an RCMP investigation would be required in order to continue this delicate matter,” he wrote in French. “Obtaining the letter as soon as possible would be greatly appreciated.”

RCMP subsequently emailed Easton to let him know Lanteigne would be filing a complaint and thanked him for his assistance.

Easton replies, saying he had asked “someone to submit one last Wednesday,” May 27, which was before the premier announced RCMP involvement. “Sorry for the delay.”

Asked Thursday whether RCMP need a complainant or official complaint to launch and/or continue an investigation, spokesperson Cpl. Hans Ouellete said: “An RCMP investigation can be initiated when the RCMP becomes aware of situations that may involve criminal activity within RCMP jurisdiction.”

The Premier’s Office, Vitalité Health Network and the RCMP declined interview requests, citing the court proceedings.

Investigated for possible criminal negligence

Lanteigne’s complaint “was officially received on May 30th,” Staff Sgt. Jean-Marc Paré, the acting officer in charge of the serious crime section of the major crime unit, said in an email to Cpl. Jullie Rogers-Marsh, who was in charge of communications. “However I believe Premier Higgs announced the RCMP were investigating on Thursday May 28 … not sure how we would deal with that.”

Lanteigne requested RCMP conduct an investigation “into the behaviour of Ngola in the history of the coronavirus,” according to Primeau’s notes.

A “situation report” J Division sent to the RCMP’s national operations centre in Ottawa says the major crime unit was investigating the incident “for possible charges of criminal negligence.”

“Contact tracing could be as high as 1,000 from initial doctor who was diagnosed,” the report says.

Health officer warned RCMP of challenge identifying patient zero in Campbellton COVID outbreak
RCMP faced a number of ‘issues’ early in their investigation, according to the notes of the head of the major crime unit. They didn’t know who the complainant was and the regional health officer refused to talk to them, citing privacy issues. (CBC)

Ngola, who is also known as Jean Robert Ngola Monzinga and as Ngola Monzinga, travelled to Quebec the week of May 10. The COVID-19 outbreak in the Campbellton region began May 21. A total of 41 people became infected, and two of them, who were in their 80s, died, marking the province’s first COVID fatality.

The regional medical officer of health made it clear to investigators that neither she, nor her department had filed a complaint to police regarding the COVID outbreak.

Pâquet told police she could not provide the name of the doctor or any other information concerning her investigation into the matter without a judge’s order.

Health officer urged police to protect Ngola

She suggested police should be protecting Ngola “because the public is very angry about the situation,” according to a report prepared by Cpl. Jonathan Simard.

“She is worried because Dr. Ngola may be in danger and she fears for his safety as well as that of his daughter.”

The defence has said Ngola, who is from Congo, suffered a “barrage of threats … online racial attacks, local harassment and racial slurs” after his identity was “outed” on social media, along with his photo.

Officers’ notes indicate RCMP received a call from Ngola on May 28 to inform them of “negative attention since his identity has been associated to the COVID-19 cases.”

Ngola, who was suspended and isolating at home after he and his daughter had both tested positive, requested patrols, which were made “through the night,” according to the documents.

Up to 21 officers had to be tested

Additional resources from J Division were dispatched to the region to “provide enhanced patrols and visibility … given the heightened local tension,” according to the situation report.

It’s not clear from the court documents how many officers were involved in the investigation, but up to 21 went into the Campbellton hospital building during the initial days, according to the situation report. They were all expected to be tested within 48 hours of the report and advised to self-isolate. RCMP have not said whether any of them tested positive.

Police called Pâquet back on June 12 to ask who had informed Ngola on May 26 that one of his patients had tested positive for COVID-19.

Health officer warned RCMP of challenge identifying patient zero in Campbellton COVID outbreak
An example of redacted RCMP officers’ notes disclosed to Ngola’s defence team. (Campbellton provincial court)

Pâquet confirmed it was she but said she was told by her legal adviser and her employer not to provide information for the investigation “because there were legal proceedings involved,” according to Cpl. Jonathan Simard’s notes.

“No warrant, I say nothing.”

Simard told Pâquet he needed to know the details and the instructions she, the Public Health representative, gave to Ngola that day.

“I told her that I was not trying to trap anyone, she replied that she felt like I was trying to trap her.”

The matter went up the chain to René Boudreau, associate deputy minister of health, who confirmed to RCMP on June 16 that Pâquet was unable to answer their questions without a warrant.

Isolation rules

Dr. France Desrosiers, who took over as CEO of Vitalité after Lanteigne retired in November, told RCMP, “when a doctor has to take a prolonged absence from the region or from his work, he must notify his department director,” according to the court documents.

The rest of the page is censored. Prolonged is not defined and there is no information about isolation requirements.

Vitalité had previously provided CBC with a copy of a self-assessment checklist that was emailed to all employees on April 6, 2020. It specified that anyone who travelled outside New Brunswick — except those who commute from Quebec or Maine — had to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return.

The provincial government requires health-care workers who live and work in New Brunswick to self-isolate for 14 days upon return from travel outside the province. There are exceptions, however. Doctors and nurses who work in New Brunswick but live across the border and commute regularly don’t have to isolate, for example.

Health officer warned RCMP of challenge identifying patient zero in Campbellton COVID outbreak
Ngola, who worked as a family doctor and ER physician at the Campbellton Regional Hospital for seven years, was suspended by the Vitalité Health Network and now practises in Quebec. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Ngola has said “there was a lot of confusion” about isolation requirements, and other doctors he worked with had not self-isolated after travelling out of province.

Before his trip, he said he called thee New Brunswick COVID hotline and an operator told him that as an essential worker, he did not have to self-isolate upon his return.

During an interview June 2, Ngola had said he drove straight through to Quebec to pick up his daughter and straight back, with no stops and had no contact with anyone.

He did make a stop in Trois-Rivières, however, where he met with a couple of other doctors at a clinic and discussed a job opportunity, he later confirmed.

He had a previously scheduled conference call with two doctors on May 13 but decided to meet with them in person. They wore masks and gloves and sat two metres apart, he said.

Ngola said he told peace officers at the border checkpoint he was a doctor and had travelled overnight to pick up his daughter. He said he was given a pamphlet with general instructions about self-isolating.

Health officer warned RCMP of challenge identifying patient zero in Campbellton COVID outbreak
Vitalité has said 90 employees, or nearly 10 per cent of its hospital staff, live in Pointe-à-la-Croix, Que. and cross the J.C. Van Horne Bridge to Campbellton daily. More than 20 per cent of patients who visit the ER at Campbellton Regional Hospital are from Quebec. (Serge Bouchard/Radio-Canada)

At the time of the outbreak, he was seeing his family practice patients only virtually but was treating patients in-person in the ER.

Based on the coronavirus’s incubation period of up to two weeks, a private investigator hired by the defence concluded Ngola did not carry the virus across the border but rather was infected in New Brunswick by either a patient or a colleague.

To date, no criminal charges have been laid.

Ngola’s lawyer Joël Etienne has described the charge against him as “tantamount to a traffic ticket.” It is not a criminal charge under the Criminal Code of Canada but rather is punishable under the Provincial Offences Procedures Act. The section carries a fine of between $240 and $10,200 for a first offence.

Ngola, who now practises medicine in Louiseville, Que., is scheduled to stand trial June 15 to 25. His next court appearance is April 7.

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