A grand jury declined to indict Dr Hasan Gokal (pictured) after allegations that he stole doses of the Moderna vaccine by distributing them to friends and family
A Houston doctor accused of stealing nine COVID-19 vaccine doses and administering them to his friends and family will not be charged by a grand jury.
Dr Hasan Gokal, 48, allegedly stole a vial of the Moderna shot while working g at a vaccination site at a suburban Houston park on December 29
He was fired from his job at Harris County Public Health and initially charged with misdemeanor count of theft by a public servant, though the case was quickly dismissed.
Prosecutors attempted to stick charges to him once again, though, and took the case to a grand jury.
But the grand jury declined to bring charges against Gokal on Wednesday.
Gokal was administering vaccines as part of an event in Lyndsay Lyons Park, and, at the end of the event, one vial of vaccine – each of which contains ten to eleven doses – had to be opened for the final person to receive the vaccine.
Once a vial is opened, doses must be quickly used or discarded, they can not return to storage.
Gokal said that he offered the final ten doses to other staff at the event, though they all either declined or had been previously vaccinated.
Not wanting to waste the doses, he began to contact friends and family members in the area to get the shots, and he gave the final available shot to his wife – who was eligible due to a medical condition.
Paul Doyle, Gokal’s attorney, criticized the decision by prosecutors to pursue charges, saying Gokal’s supervisor had approved his plan for the leftover vaccine doses.
His attorney said Gokal was only trying to save lives by using doses that would have been thrown away.
‘There is no other case that I know of in the country where a doctor went above and beyond and was persecuted for it,’ Doyle said.
Doyle said hundreds of medical professionals and others had written letters, sent emails and made phone calls in support of Gokal’s actions.
One of the people Goal (right) distributed the vaccine to was his wife Maria (right) who has a condition that made her eligible for the vaccine at the time. Maria was among ten people Gokal distributed vaccine doses to after an event to avoid them expiring
‘It was my world coming down,’ Gokal told the New York Times about the incident in February.
‘To have everything collapse on you. God, it was the lowest moment in my life.’
Gokal is an immigrant from Pakistan and earned his medical degree from SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York.
He moved to Texas in 2009 to oversee the emergency department at the hospital after working in Central New York.
In the early days of the pandemic, Gokal lived in a hotel and then moved apartment out of fear of infecting his wife, Maria, 47.
Maria suffers from pulmonary sarcoidosis, a disease in the lungs that leaves Maria winded after doing little activity, and made her among the first Americans eligible for vaccination.
‘I was petrified to go home and bring Covid to my wife,’ the doctor said.
Gokal described being recruited to be the medical director for Harris County Public Health’s Covid-response team in April.
While the job paid less, he said he was thrilled the job would allow him to better protect his wife and limit her exposure to the virus, according to the Times.
During a December 22 conference call, state officials advised Gokal to administer the Moderna vaccine to people who worked in health care or to residents in long-term care facilities and then those who were over 65 or with health conditions who had increased risk of getting coronavirus.
Gokal was promptly fired after reporting the ten doses. The officials explained to Gokal that he had violated protocol, adding that he should have returned the remaining doses or thrown them out, he claims
The doctor claims that on the day of the incident, when the final vial was opened and only one person received a shot from it, he decided to find other people he knew in the community to get vaccinated.
He called a Harris County public official in charge of operations, sharing his plan to give out the remaining 10 doses and was given approval.
When he got home, a woman in her mid-60s with cardiac issues and a woman in her early-70s with a myriad of health problems were waiting outside.
Both were given shots of the vaccine.
The doctor and his wife then drove to a nearby Sugar Land home and immunized four people there.
Those included a man in his late 60s with health issues; the man’s 90-something bed-bound mother; his mother-in-law, a woman in her mid-80s with severe dementia; and his wife, a caregiver for her mother.
With six doses down and four to go, the doctor then drove to a housebound woman in her late 70s and gave her the vaccine.
‘I didn’t know her at all,’ he added.
Three people agreed to meet the doctor back at his home, securing the last remaining doses.
One was an acquaintance in her mid-50s who works at a health clinic front desk and the other was a middle-aged woman who he hadn’t met but whose child relies on a ventilator.
The third would then inform Gokal that they would no longer be able to get to him in time.
It was approaching midnight and time on the remaining dose was running out.
It was then that the doctor turned to his wife, who was eligible for the vaccine given her condition.
Gokal worked for Harris County Public Health in Houston, Texas, before he was let go because of the incident
‘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 remembered telling her.
‘It’s as simple as that.’
Gokal would submit the paperwork on the 10 people he vaccinated the following morning.
The doctor also said that he was rattled when asked why there appeared to be a lack of ‘equity’ among those he vaccinated. ‘Are you suggesting that there were too many Indian names in that group?’ Gokal recalled asking the official, who he said confirmed that was the case
He also told his supervisor and colleagues what he had done and why.
The doctor was summoned to appear before his supervisor and human resources director, several days later, asked whether he had administered the doses outside of the scheduled time on December 29.
After explaining that he had, following guidelines, he was promptly fired.
The officials explained to Gokal that he had violated protocol, adding that he should have returned the remaining doses or thrown them out, he claims.
The doctor also said that he was rattled when asked why there appeared to be a lack of ‘equity’ among those he vaccinated.
‘Are you suggesting that there were too many Indian names in that group?’ Dr. Gokal recalled asking the official, who he said confirmed that was the case.
Gokal shared that he learned of the charges after reporters gathered at his home following news of them from the Harris County district attorney, Kim Ogg.
‘He abused his position to place his friends and family in line in front of people who had gone through the lawful process to be there,’ Ogg said in the initial release announcing the charges.
‘What he did was illegal and he’ll be held accountable under the law.’
Ogg said Gokal ignored protocols intended to ensure that the vaccine was given to front-line workers and people at higher risk for COVID-19 complications instead of being wasted, adding that mishandling the vaccine could lead to the county’s government funding being cut.
Franklin Bynum, a criminal court judge in Harris County, chose to initially throw out the case, and ’emphatically’ rejected to idea that Gokal worked in a criminal manner.
‘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.
‘The Court emphatically rejects this attempted imposition of the criminal law on the professional decisions of a physician.’
Prosecutors then chose to pursue a grand jury indictment of Gokal.
‘We respect the decision of the grand jury in this and every case. Evidence, not public opinion, is the guiding principle of our work,’ the District Attorney’s Office said in a statement on the grand jury decision.
Gokal has since reported that it has been hard for him to find another job, as the situation has left him ostracized in the medical community.
He has spent time since volunteering at a medical clinic for the uninsured.
In late December, when the incident occurred, the United States was having trouble distributing vaccines.
Due to a lack of available staff, logistical issues and lack of distribution infrastructure, many eligible for the vaccine were unable to receive a shot.
Some even feared that doses of the vaccines would inevitably go to waste due to a failure to distribute them in time.