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A view of the J.C. Van Horne Bridge that runs from Pointe-a-la-Croix, Que., to Campbellton, N.B. Dr. Ngola says he has evidence that he is not 'patient zero' of the current outbreak around Campbellton.

A New Brunswick doctor, blamed for sparking the province’s recent COVID-19 outbreak, says the accusation that he seeded the virus led to threats and racist abuse that have “destroyed” his life, and he is demanding an apology from the Premier.

Jean Robert Ngola Monzinga has been at the centre of a roiling controversy in New Brunswick since Premier Blaine Higgs announced a resurgence of the novel coronavirus around the small city of Campbellton and blamed an “irresponsible” medical professional who had travelled outside the province without self-isolating on their return.

The doctor’s identity was soon leaked online, causing a backlash that has made him fear for his family’s safety.

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Dr. Ngola, who has been suspended by his health authority and is under investigation by the RCMP, says he has evidence that he is not “patient zero” of the current outbreak, which now numbers 24 cases and one death in the region and has stalled the province’s exit from lockdown. Meanwhile, epidemiologists caution that finding the source of a local COVID-19 cluster is deceptively hard and can risk wrongly targeting individuals.

Still, the doctor fears permanent damage to his career and mental health after becoming the public face of backsliding in a province that was hopeful it had eliminated the virus.

“How can I continue?” he said in an interview. “The consequences of that, short term and long term, I don’t know. I have to wait. But I think I’m destroyed.”

A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dr. Ngola immigrated to Canada in 2005 and studied at Laval University before beginning to practice medicine in New Brunswick in 2013. He was a family physician who also worked in the emergency room of the Campbellton Regional Hospital and estimates that he cares for about 2,000 patients.

During the week of May 10, he drove to the Montreal suburb of Longueuil to pick up his daughter after her mother had to leave the country for a family emergency. There, he said he limited his contacts to the 4-year-old and his brother, who had been caring for her.

On his way back, he stopped in the city of Trois-Rivières to meet with two fellow physicians for a discussion about the pandemic and possible future work in Quebec. A private investigator hired by Mr. Ngola’s lawyer said the meeting took place in a local clinic for about 20 minutes.

After returning to Campbellton, Dr. Ngola did not self-isolate, but went to work at the hospital the next day. He felt an obligation to his patients, he said – though with “hindsight,” he added, he would have “stayed at home.”

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Provincial-government policy requires health care workers who live and work in New Brunswick to self-isolate for 14 days if they return from outside of the province. However, there are exceptions. The many doctors and nurses who work in Campbellton but live in nearby Quebec commute back and forth daily with no quarantine requirement.

In addition, health care workers from outside the province filling in for a temporary absence, known as locums, routinely entered New Brunswick with no 14-day isolation period at the time of Dr. Ngola’s trip. The province has since developed a policy requiring employers to request exemptions to the usual rules for such workers.

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The doctor’s lawyer, Joel Etienne, cited this heavy traffic between Campbellton and Quebec to explain Dr. Ngola’s decision to return to work immediately.

“If there’s anything lax, it’s the professional standards,” he said. “He was following the daily practices of his colleagues.”

On May 26, a public-health official phoned Dr. Ngola to inform him that one of his patients had tested positive for COVID-19. The doctor got a test the same day, went into self-isolation with his daughter and received a positive result on May 27. He then gave officials a full list of the patients he had seen in the previous two weeks and informed them about his trip, he said.

That day, the Premier told a news conference that “one irresponsible individual” had reignited the pandemic in New Brunswick. The Campbellton hospital ER would be temporarily closed, and, after a complaint on May 30, the RCMP began investigating whether Dr. Ngola had violated the province’s Emergency Measures Act.

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No government official publicly used the doctor’s name, but shortly after the Premier’s criticism, Dr. Ngola’s identity and photo were circulating on social media, along with racist attacks against him. One Facebook user said he should return to his country. It left the doctor and his daughter, who had also tested positive for the virus, feeling besieged. He has requested and received police protection as a result.

“I’ve received many threats,” he said. “No sleep. I have to wake up to check if there’s something outside.”

Health Department spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane said that all information collected by Public Health remains confidential, adding: “Frequently during this pandemic, Public Health has encouraged New Brunswickers to be kind to one another and to show compassion, especially for those who have contracted COVID-19. It is disheartening to hear that not everyone is following this advice as that is not the New Brunswick way.”​

Dr. Ngola wants to present evidence that he was not the source of the outbreak in Campbellton, including the fact that his brother tested negative and that the doctors in Trois-Rivières are not sick.

“In the media, I was the guy who came with the virus and spread it to everybody,” he said. “But the virus is circulating. People cross the bridge every day.”

Now he wants an apology from the Premier and to be reinstated to his previous functions by the Vitalité Health Network, where he worked. (Neither the Premier’s office nor the health network responded to requests for comment.)

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Hunting for a definitive “patient zero” is often futile, especially with a virus as “stealthy” as this one, said Ashleigh Tuite, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. It’s why epidemiologists such as her try to avoid talk of “super spreaders” in favour of “super-spreader events.”

“The focus should be more about setting,” she said. “It’s a strange thing with infectious disease, where there does seem to be a need for blame – someone who’s responsible.”

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