Dr. Hasan Gokal decided to give away 10 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that were about to go to waste, in what he thought was the responsible decision. Everythingit was “an absolute, complete shock” and “incredibly unexpected,” he told CBS News.
The Houston physician worked as an emergency response physician for the Texas Harris County Department of Public Health for the Office of Preparedness. He was also the medical director of the COVID-19 vaccine launch for the county.
In late December of last year, he was overseeing a vaccination event for emergency workers, the county’s first public vaccination event, he said. In two weeks, he would be fired and charged with theft for his actions that night.
When the event came to an end, one last person appeared to take a photo. Then, a new vial of Moderna vaccine containing 11 doses was punctured to deliver the vaccine, triggering the six-hour time limit for the remaining 10 doses.
The remaining 10 doses had to be in arms within six hours or they would have to be discarded, because they would have expired. Gokal said he was determined not to waste them. “This is a county of 5 million people and we had the first 3,000,000 doses. There was no place to dump any of that. Never,” he said. “When you have something so precious, that saves your life, it would hurt you to throw it away.”
Gokal said his first reaction was to offer the doses to the event workers, but they had already been vaccinated or refused. The emergency workers had already left the scene and the police officers had already received the vaccine or said they wanted to wait before taking it.
With no other options, Gokal called a Harris County public health official in charge of operations to share his plan to find 10 people and administer the remaining doses. He said they told him to do it.
Because the event was the first time Harris County began vaccinating the public, Gokal said there was no county protocol that he could have followed at the time: “They didn’t exist. This was a new setting … they have a precedence of this, “he said.
But he said there was a guide from the Texas Department of State Health Services to always try to find people eligible at that level when there are doses of vaccine left over at the end of a shift. If you can’t find anyone eligible, find someone who is willing and able to accept you. The agency’s message, Gokal said, was clear: “We don’t want any doses to go to waste. Period.”
“At that point, I start to go through my phone list, thinking about who might” fall into category 1 (b) (people over 65 or with a health condition that increases the risk of serious illness related to Covid), Dr. Gokal said.
He scrambled to find 10 people who met the state’s immunization requirements. Some were known; others, strangers. Among them were two women in their 70s. Two bedridden old women. Her 70-year-old children with medical conditions also received the vaccine. A mother with a child using a ventilator, for whom contracting the virus could have been a “death sentence,” Gokal said.
After midnight, and with only 20 minutes before the vaccine expired, the last person scheduled to receive it canceled. Gokal said he was faced with two options: throw away the last dose or give it to his wife, who suffers from pulmonary sarcoidosis, a lung disease that takes her breath away and can be fatal. Given his condition, he was eligible, the doctor said.
Gokal said he never intended or planned to give the injection to any member of his family unless it was through the “proper channels”, but given the unusual circumstances, he gave the last dose to his wife.
He presented documentation of the 10 people he vaccinated the next morning at work and was transparent about what had happened the day before with his colleagues and supervisor, he said. A week later, he was fired.
Human Resources told him he should have returned the remaining doses, he said, even if it meant they had been thrown away. Gokal, who immigrated from Pakistan when he was 10, said human resources also questioned the lack of “fairness” among the list of people he had inoculated, suggesting there were too many Indian names in the group.
The Harris County Office of Public Health Communications said the department was unable to comment on the Gokal case.
Two weeks after he was fired, the doctor discovered that Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg had charged him with theft and violating county protocols.
“He abused his position to line up his friends and family in front of people who had gone through the legal process to be there,” Ogg said. She said a week had passed before she “told a fellow Harris County Public Health employee, who then reported it to supervisors.”
Later, a judge dismissed the charges. The judge’s ruling, which said that “the affidavit is riddled with oversights and errors,” noted that the state did not “sufficiently argue that the plaintiff had a greater right to possession of the vaccine than the defendant, who, according to the Declarant’s admission is ‘the medical advisor for the COVID-19 response.’
The district attorney still intends to present a case in front of a grand jury. Gokal’s lawyers hope that will happen in the next two weeks. If charged, he could face a year in prison.
Gokal’s attorney, Paul Doyle, said that when he requested copies of the written protocols and waiting list referenced in the complaint, a prosecutor told him that there was no written waiting list.
In an email, Dane Schiller, communications director for the district attorney, said the office could not comment on the case, but referred CBS News to the indictment document..
Gokal said tears come to his eyes every time he recounts the moment he learned that charges had been brought against him.
The hardest thing he had to deal with, he said, was noticing the consequences the situation had on his loved ones: his wife was struggling to sleep and her condition was deteriorating. Her children now found it difficult to focus on their homework: “It has been devastating,” she said.
“When I’m in the emergency room, when there is a question mark about what is the right thing to do, human life always trumps any policy issue. No one questions that,” said Gokal, who has a background in emergency medicine. Now, he says he is dealing with the repercussions of not wasting a vaccine in the midst of a pandemic.
Gokal said he hopes his experience doesn’t cause other physicians to lose their moral compass and be deterred from doing “the right thing” when it comes to making decisions.
“It is unfortunate that I was the first on the scene with this type of situation and not several in the future, when they realized that this should always happen,” he said.
Earlier this month, both the Texas Medical Association and the Harris County Medical Society released a statement supporting Gokal’s actions.
“It is difficult to understand any justification for charging a well-intentioned doctor in this situation with a crime,” the statement said.
Regardless of the outcome of the legal process, Gokal fears for his career.
The indictment “made Dr. Gokal look horrible all over the world,” his attorney said, and tarnished a career he has been building for two decades.
“Everyone read the initial story and the initial reaction was: ‘These were vaccines for my parents, grandparents and frontline workers. How dare you steal them?'” Said Doyle.
For now, Gokal spends his time volunteering at a charity health clinic.
“Since the only alternative would be to throw away the vaccines, I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” Gokal said. “I wouldn’t be a good doctor if I said I regret doing that.”