Across the country, Americans are receiving their first or second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in efforts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Healthcare officials are working their hardest to administer the vaccine in time as most vaccines have a 12-hour window once thawed, however, while some are being applauded for their efforts to stop the vaccine from expiring without use, others are being scrutinized.
While Americans applauded and appreciated Oregon health workers who administered the vaccine to individuals on the road during a snowstorm in order to prevent it from expiring, many criticized a Houston doctor for having the same intention. While Dr. Hasan Gokal was not in a snowstorm, his intention to save the vaccine from expiring was not any less heroic. Despite this, Gokal was not only let go from the Harris County Public Health Department but was charged with stealing ten doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for rushing to administer them before expiration.
A judge dismissed the charges on Jan. 25, however, Gokal is still jobless and has faced public scrutiny as a result of his mug shot being published. The charges were announced when Harris County’s district attorney, Kim Ogg, issued a news release with the headline: “Fired Harris County Health Doctor Charged With Stealing Vial Of Covid-19 Vaccine.” This prompted individuals to believe Gokal had wrongly stolen the vaccine.
“It was my world coming down. To have everything collapse on you. God, it was the lowest moment in my life,” Gokal told The New York Times. His attorney Paul Doyle added: "Everybody was looking at this guy and saying, ‘I got my mother waiting for a vaccine, my grandfather waiting for a vaccine.’ They were thinking, ‘This guy is a villain.’”
The incident in question occurred at the end of the day on Dec. 29, when Gokal was left to find 10 eligible people to vaccinate within 6 hours before an open vial of Moderna vaccine would expire. After reaching out to healthcare professionals and police officers on-site and asking if there were any patients waiting to take the doses, Gokal got the okay from a health department supervisor to give the vaccines to other individuals in order to avoid having to toss them. He then went on a quest to find 10 people for the remaining doses by driving around Houston vaccinating both acquaintances and complete strangers.
According to the Independent, those who he vaccinated included a bed-bound person over 90-years-old, a woman with dementia in her 80s, a mother of a child who was on a ventilator, and his wife who has lung disease. Gokal vaccinated his wife 15-minutes before the vaccine expired. Reports indicate that prior to vaccinating her he said: “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."
As required, the next day Gokal entered the names of all the recipients into the state’s database. The following week on Jan. 8 he was fired by Harris County Public Health Officials who claimed he violated policy by stealing doses from a vaccination site and should have thrown them away instead of administering them, the Times reported.
The Harris County district attorney then charged Gokal with one count of theft by a public servant. While the case has been dismissed for lack of probable cause, the district attorney maintains that he will take it to the grand jury. The county district attorney alleged that Gokal “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."
Gokal expressed that the charges shocked him because he was following advice that said: "Just put it in people’s arms. We don’t want any doses to go to waste. Period.” Additionally, officials raised questions on the “equity” of the people vaccinated specifically their names prompting Gokal to ask: “Are you suggesting that there were too many Indian names in that group?”
It seems the issue was not vaccinating individuals to save the vaccine doses from expiring, but who was vaccinated when the issue arose. Additionally, prosecutors confirmed with Gokal’s attorney that no written protocols or a waiting list as referenced in the complaint were found, according to The New York Times.
While the charges have been dropped at this time, Gokal has been asked by hospitals not to return until his case is resolved in a grand jury. He is suffering for his efforts to help Americans during a time of a pandemic, yet still remains hopeful. While awaiting his trial, Gokal is volunteering at a clinic for those without insurance. But despite this and the work he continues to do for others, the reality remains that because of the county district attorney’s inability to hear his side of the story, a news piece on a Pakistani doctor who stole vaccines will remain out there; instead of the reality that Gokal distributed these vaccines in an effort to avoid throwing them away, people will assume he stole them for ill purposes.
“It is difficult to understand any justification for charging any well-intentioned physician in this situation with a criminal offense,” the Texas Medical Association and the Harris County Medical Society said in a statement.