Dr. Hasan Gokal says he faced an impossible situation in late December when 10 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine started to expire. A vial had already been opened, leaving him just six hours to find eligible patients who still needed their shot.
He started calling friends and acquaintances with preexisting medical conditions in the neighborhood, inviting them to his home in Sugar Land, TX to get vaccinated, including several elderly people, a mother who uses a ventilator, and his wife, who has a pulmonary disease that leaves her short of breath.
By the end of the night, he managed to give away every last dose before they expired, but he never expected what would happen next.
Fired for “Stealing” Vaccines
Dr. Gokal says he was later fired from his government job and charged with stealing 10 doses of the vaccine worth a total of $135. His name and mugshot quickly spread around the internet, making him a virtual pariah in the medical community.
“It was my world coming down. To have everything collapse on you. God, it was the lowest moment in my life,” Dr. Gokal told The New York Times.
The story became an inflection point as facilities, states, and providers struggled with the ethical distribution of the drug. Supply shortages, malfunctioning freezers, and transportation issues have forced providers into difficult situations as they try to hand out the drug before it goes to waste. That usually means administering it to people who wouldn’t normally be eligible under the latest regulations, including people who happen to be in the right place at the right time.
As for Dr. Gokal, a judge dismissed the charges against him late last month, but the district attorney vowed to present the case to a grand jury. His defense team says he was acting responsibly – if not heroically – by administering the drug before it expired. But prosecutors portray him as an unethical provider who took advantage of the situation by inoculating his wife.
“Everybody was looking at this guy and saying, ‘I got my mother waiting for a vaccine, my grandfather waiting for a vaccine,’” the lawyer, Paul Doyle, said. “They were thinking, ‘This guy is a villain.’”
What Went Wrong?
Dr. Gokal immigrated from Pakistan as a child. After earning his medical degree, he worked in several hospitals around New York before relocating to rural Texas in 2009. Before the pandemic, he split his time between two different hospitals. With his wife’s disease, he stayed in a hotel room to avoid infecting his family. In April, he became the medical director for the Harris County Public Health department’s COVID-19 response team. Even though he took a pay cut, he was anxious to get out of the ER to limit his exposure to the virus.
In December, he took part in a conference call with health officials as they went over the latest vaccination guidelines. He says he was instructed to give the shot to healthcare workers, residents of long-term care facilities, and people over the age of 65 with existing medical conditions.
But after that, he said, the message was: “Just put it in people’s arms. We don’t want any doses to go to waste. Period.”
On December 29th, he attended one of the area’s first vaccination events, where 250 doses were given out to healthcare workers. At around 6:45 PM local time, a nurse punctured a new vial of the vaccine, but by that point, the event was winding down.
Once the seal was broken, they had just six hours to find 10 eligible patients.
Dr. Gokal started by asking 20 people already in the room, but they either refused the shot or had already been vaccinated. When that didn’t work, he called the Harris County Public Health department to alert them of his plans to find 10 additional people to vaccinate. He says they responded with a simple “OK”, giving him the all-clear.
With precious minutes racing by, he started calling local providers to see if they had eligible patients who needed a shot, but no one was available. He considered returning the vial to the health department, but everyone had already gone home for the day.
Desperate for a solution, he started calling contacts in his cell phone, asking them if they have older relatives or knew anyone who qualified for a shot.
By the time he got home, a woman in her 70s was already waiting in his driveway.
As for the people he vaccinated, he says it was “no one I was really intimately familiar with,” Dr. Gokal said. “I wasn’t that close to anyone.”
He also started driving to the houses of eligible patients to administer the drug. When he returned home to give out the last few shots, someone called to cancel at the last minute, but it was too late: the drug was about to expire.
Without an alternative, Dr. Gokal turned to his wife and 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. It’s as simple as that.”
The next day, he submitted paperwork to his colleagues on the people he vaccinated and why. That’s when he was fired from his position.
Health officials said Dr. Gokal should’ve either returned the unused doses or thrown them away. They also questioned the group of people he chose to vaccinate. “Are you suggesting that there were too many Indian names in that group?” Dr. Gokal said he was asked. “Exactly,” he says he was told.
Two weeks later, cameras and microphones started showing up at his house. That’s how he found out he was being charged with stealing 10 doses of the vaccine.
He says the district attorney’s office never called to ask him for his side of the story.
However, a judge threw out the charges, ruling that, “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. The Court emphatically rejects this attempted imposition of the criminal law on the professional decisions of a physician.”
The Texas Medical Association and the Harris County Medical Society issued statements in support of Dr. Gokal. “It is difficult to understand any justification for charging any well-intentioned physician in this situation with a criminal offense,” the statement said.
Without his job, he spends his time volunteering at local health clinics, but he says his reputation will never be the same again.