- Although the case against Houston-based Dr. Hasan Gokal has been dismissed by a Harris County judge, he says he’s still being treated as a criminal.
A Houston, Texas doctor got some respite last month, after a Harris County judge dismissed a case in which he was accused of stealing COVID-19 vaccines. Authorities alleged that Dr. Hasan Gokal, who worked for Harris County Public Health, took a vial of Moderna vaccine while working at a vaccination site, and administered ten doses, including one to his wife, Maria, 47, who has pulmonary sarcoidosis. The officials maintained that he had violated protocol and should have returned the remaining doses to the office or thrown them away.
As per CDC regulation, the 10 doses in a Moderna vial are viable for six hours after the seal is punctured.
The Pakistani American was charged with a misdemeanor count of theft by a public servant, but the case was dismissed on Jan. 21 by criminal court judge Franklin Bynum. “In the number of words usually taken to describe an allegation of retail shoplifting, the State attempts, for the first time, to criminalize a doctor’s documented administration of vaccine doses during a public health emergency,” Bynum wrote.
However, this reversal hasn’t ended his woes. Last month, he was fired from his job at the county, after an internal investigation by the health department. “It was my world coming down,” he told the New York Times. “To have everything collapse on you. God, it was the lowest moment in my life.” He has been looked at as a villain, a criminal, the Times said. He is still jobless, and currently volunteers at a nonprofit health clinic for the uninsured. His family, both in Houston and in Pakistan, is sacred with all the negative press he’s been receiving.
According to online records, Gokal is in good standing with the Texas Medical Board and has practiced medicine for 21 years, including nine years in Texas. The Times notes that Gokal has support from both the Texas Medical Association and the Harris County Medical Society.
According to the Times, Gokal, 48, immigrated from Pakistan as a boy and earned a medical degree at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. “After working at hospitals in Central New York, he moved to Texas in 2009 to oversee the emergency department at a suburban Houston hospital,” the report said. He has volunteers extensively as well, rebuilding homes and providing medical care after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Prior to working with the county, Gokal told the Times that he was splitting his time between two area hospitals. When the pandemic hit early last year, he was forced to stay away from his home because of the risk of infecting his wife. He told the Times that he lived in a hotel for a month and then moved to a temporary apartment. However, in April, things changed for Gokal and he was recruited by the Harris County Public Health department as the medical director for its Covid-response team. “The job paid less, but he was eager to protect his wife by limiting his exposure to the coronavirus in emergency rooms,” the Times said.
Almost six months after he joined the county health department, Gokal was part of a Dec. 22 conference call in which state health officials explained the protocols for administering the recently approved Moderna vaccine.
A few days later, on Dec. 29, Gokal was administering vaccines at a site at Lindsay Lyons Park, in Humble. He told the Times that toward the end, someone came to get a shot and activated the seal for the remaining 10 doses in the vial. He told the Times that he looked for people who weren’t vaccinated at the site, but to no avail. He said people either refused or had already received a shot.
That’s when Gokal decided to take the vial home and instead of wasting it. He then called a Harris County public official in charge of operations. When he shared his plan with him, Gokal told the Times that his response was “OK.” Then he said he called another high-ranking colleague whose parents and in-laws were eligible for the vaccine, but they weren’t available.
He told the Times that as he started the drive to his home in a neighboring county, he called people in his cellphone’s contact list to ask whether they had older relatives or neighbors needing to be immunized. “No one I was really intimately familiar with,” he said. “I wasn’t that close to anyone.”
When he reached his home in Sugar Land, he found a woman in her mid-60s with cardiac issues, and a woman in her early 70s with assorted health problems, he told the Times, adding that he inoculated both.
He then got back into his car, accompanied by his wife and found four more eligible people. He needed three more people. He told the Times that two people had agreed to meet him at his home. With 15 minutes left and one shot remaining, he decided to give it to his wife. “I didn’t intend to give this to you, but in a half-hour I’m going to have to dump this down the toilet,” he recalled telling her, according to the Times “It’s as simple as that.”
He told the Times that the following day, he submitted the paperwork for the 10 people he had vaccinated the previous night, including his wife. He said he also informed his supervisor and colleagues of what he had done, and why. Several days later, that supervisor and the human resources director summoned him. When he agreed to have given the vaccine outside of the scheduled event, “in keeping with guidelines not to waste the vaccine,” Gokal told the Times that he was “promptly fired.” One of the questions he was asked stunned him, he told the Times.
But it was a followup question by one of the officials that stunned him he told the Times. When one of the officials startled him by questioning the lack of “equity” among those he had vaccinated, Gokal asked: “Are you suggesting that there were too many Indian names in that group?” Exactly, he said he was told.