02/24/2021 / By Arsenio Toledo
A doctor from Texas was fired after taking 10 doses of the Moderna Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine that were about to expire and administering them to acquaintances, strangers and his wife. The doctor argued that he did not want any of the doses to go to waste.
On Dec. 29, Dr. Hasan Gokal, the head of Harris County Public Health’s COVID-19 response team, was supervising a vaccination event for essential workers in the Houston suburb of Humble. Given the privacy of the event, the pace at which the vaccine doses were being administered was very slow. By the time the event closed down the healthcare workers had only administered about 250 doses. (Related: Vaccine rush: Over a thousand people in Seattle vaccinated in the middle of the night after freezer filled with coronavirus vaccine doses malfunctioned.)
At around 6:45 p.m., an eligible person arrived and received a dose. This meant that one vial filled with 11 doses of the Moderna vaccine had to be opened, starting the six-hour window when those 10 other doses are still viable.
Not wanting the 10 other doses to go to waste, Gokal acted quickly and asked the other workers still at the event if they wanted to be vaccinated. None of them took up Gokal’s offer.
Gokal then called up a Harris County public official and asked if he could give out the remaining 10 doses. Gokal claims to have been given the green light to do so.
Desperate to not let the vaccines go to waste, Gokal started driving to his neighborhood while calling up people on his phone’s contact list. He asked the people who responded to him if they had older relatives or neighbors who were eligible for vaccination.
“No one I was really intimately familiar with,” Gokal explained. “I wasn’t that close to anyone.”
He told these people to come to his home, and when he got there, two women – one in her 60s and another in her 70s – with health problems were waiting for him. Both were given shots of the Moderna vaccine and sent on their way.
Gokal and his wife then drove to a care home where he immunized a family of four: a man in his late 60s, his bed-bound mother who was in her 90s, his mother-in-law who was in her 80s and had severe dementia, and his wife, who acts as a caregiver for the family.
Gokal and his wife then drove to the home of a housebound woman in her 70s and gave her the vaccine.
Gokal then met up with two acquaintances at his home — a woman in her 50s who works at a clinic and a middle-aged woman whose child relies on a ventilator.
Running out of options and seeing no other alternative, Gokal gave the final dose to his wife, who was eligible for the vaccine because she has pulmonary sarcoidosis, a lung disease that causes wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
“I didn’t intend to give this to you,” he remembered telling her. “But in a half-hour, I’m going to have to dump this down the toilet.”
“It’s as simple as that,” Gokal added. “It makes perfect sense. We don’t want any doses wasted, period.”
Several days later, Gokal was summoned to appear before his supervisor and human resources director to explain what he had done. After attempting to argue that he had followed guidelines, he was fired.
“It was my world coming down,” said Gokal. “To have everything collapse on you. God, it was the lowest moment in my life.”
Harris County health officials explained that the doctor violated protocol, and he should have returned the doses or thrown them out. Gokal even claimed that he was asked about the 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 questioned him, who confirmed that this was exactly the case.
Gokal contends that he did nothing wrong. During a conference call on Dec. 22, state officials advised Harris County health administrators to give the Moderna vaccines to eligible people. This includes healthcare workers, long-term care facility residents, people over 65 and people with health conditions that put them at greater risk of getting the coronavirus.
Gokal said that beyond these groups, the messaging with regards to who to administer the vaccines to was simple: “Just put it in people’s arms. We don’t want any doses to go to waste. Period.”
A prosecutor for Harris County accused Gokal of “mishandling” the vaccinations.
“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,” said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. “What he did was illegal and he will be held accountable under the law.”
Fortunately for Gokal, Ogg’s attempt to prosecute him has gone nowhere because the judge that was assigned to the case dropped the charges against him and even blasted the district attorney for trying to bring up the case.
County Court-At-Law Judge Franklin Bynum strongly criticized Ogg for attempting to prosecute Gokal and said that the single misdemeanor charge of theft by a public servant lacked probable cause.
“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,” wrote Bynum in his order to drop the charges. He further contends that Ogg’s affidavit was “riddled with sloppiness and errors.”
Ogg retorted by saying that the county will still attempt to pursue the case.
“Judge Bynum’s gratuitous observations call into question his fairness and impartiality,” said Ogg’s spokesman. “We anticipate presenting all the evidence in the matter to a grand jury.”
For his part, Gokal has hired a lawyer and is preparing to sue Harris County Public Health for wrongful termination.
“An apology by Harris County Public Health and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office toward Dr. Gokal and his family will not be enough,” said his attorney. “The agency disparaged this good public servant’s name and took away his employment without cause.”
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