Fired Houston doctor says DA never asked for his side of story
- Dr. Hasan Gokal was fired after giving away 10 COVID-19 vaccine doses that were due to expire.
- Gokal said he spent six hours trying to find people who wanted the shot.
- The Houston DA’s office later charged him with theft.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
On December 29, Dr. Hasan Gokal was getting ready to wrap up the first day of Houston’s COVID-19 vaccination drive when one last person drove up for a dose before the site was set to close.
It was about 6:30 p.m. and dark outside. The vaccination site was remote, about an hour outside of Houston in the suburb of Humble.
“There was no lights, no cars anywhere. So we had to wait another half-hour to wrap things up at 7:00 p.m. That’s when we were slated to stay till,” Gokal said. “At 6:45 p.m., about 15 minutes prior to shutting down, we had one more person drive through for the vaccine. This was the problem at that point was we were done with all the vaccines and we’d done all the vaccinations. Now, one more additional person comes up and we’ve got to open a new vial of the vaccine.”
Gokal says he had to puncture open a new vial of Moderna’s vaccine, which meant he had six hours to use all 11 doses before they would have to be discarded. However, with 15 minutes left before closing, no one else arrived.
An open vaccine vial and no time to waste
He asked the 20 people working on-site, all of whom said they were already vaccinated or were not interested, Gokal said. The emergency medical services crew on site had already left, and only a few police officers remained. They, too, either already got the vaccine or were not interested.
Gokal contacted the medical director of this program and a director at the Harris County Public Health Agency to let them know he was going to search for people to vaccinate. He said both gave him a green light.
“I asked her. I said: ‘Hey, look, I’ve got these doses left. Do you have anyone I can get them into?’ And she herself was considering her own family,” Gokal told Insider of the Harris County Public Health Agency director whose name he did not disclose.
A week prior to the vaccine drive, Gokal said he was on a conference call where state health officials advised those working on vaccinations not to let the vaccine go to waste, and if a vial is opened they should seek out the next category of people eligible until the doses are used.
Gokal said it was stressed that no doses should go to waste.
Unfortunately, none of the Harris County Public Health Agency director’s family was eligible and Gokal began reaching out to acquaintances to see if he could find anyone who was qualified.
Gokal lived an hour away from the vaccination site. The acquaintances lived closer to him than they did to the vaccination site, so he prepared to drive home.
At that point, Gokal said, he had two options: leave the doses on-site where they would expire and be thrown out the next day, or spend the rest of his night trying to get them in people’s arms.
“So I decided to start trying to find people who might be eligible. And I remember I’ve been up since 4:00 a.m., out working all day. So I was beat and … I didn’t really want to do this, but I knew the importance of doing this. It wouldn’t sit well with me if I didn’t try to get it to the right people,” he told Insider.
Gokal began calling acquaintances. “So I said, I’m basically looking for people that I thought might have — family members who are elderly or sick or may work in doctor’s offices or that kind of stuff, who would be eligible for the next tier, which would be 1B. So I managed to find 10 people who said, ‘OK.'”
When he arrived home, Gokal said two of the people he was supposed to vaccinate were waiting, one person in their 60s and the other in their 70s. He gave them the shot before driving off to another home.
At the next house, he says he vaccinated four people. Someone in their 90s and another in their 80s who had dementia. He also vaccinated their two caregivers, both of whom were in their 60s.
Then Gokal said he went to the home of an elderly woman whose neighbor had called him and said she would qualify for the vaccine. She took it.
With just three shots remaining, Gokal said he drove back home where he was expecting the final three people to meet him. Two of them were already there. One was in her 50s and worked in a medical office and therefore had greater exposure, and the other was an individual in their 40s who was taking care of a child with medical issues who was on a ventilator. Gokal gave them their shots.
“She was a sole caregiver. She didn’t allow anyone else in the house because of the fear of bringing COVID and she herself was terrified that if she got it, her kids wouldn’t survive this,” Gokal said of the woman in her 40s.
Now past midnight, the final individual, an elderly man, who was meant to get the vaccine called Gokal and said it was too late for him to drive out, and he would find another time to get vaccinated.
With a few minutes left before the dose was set to expire, Gokal turned to his wife, who has a pulmonary condition. She was wary about whether it was a good idea.
“The reason I asked my wife was because she has been in and out of the hospital for the last 18 months with pulmonary sarcoidosis, which has left her breathless all the time. She’s on medications for it. And our own physician had told her, look, if you got a chance to get the vaccine, you must do so because you’re extremely high-risk.” Gokal said.
He said he was working in a hospital at the start of the pandemic, but switched to the public health role so he would be less of a risk to her.
“When COVID first started and I was working in the emergency room at the time I didn’t come home for a whole month, I would go live in a hotel because I was afraid of bringing it home to her,” he said.
The next day, Gokal went into the office and submitted the 10 forms on the immunizations and told his team how he handled the leftover doses. He said no one said anything.
A swift turn of events
Eight days later, Gokal was called in and fired by the human resources department. Prior to then, he had heard nothing about the incident.
“What they told me was … they asked: ‘Did you take these and give them to friends and family?’ I said, ‘Well, guys, you know what I did, I took them and found people to give them to who was eligible so that it wouldn’t get wasted and my wife was one of them,'” Gokal recounted of his interactions with an unnamed public health official. “He said, ‘Oh, you admitted, you’re fired.'”
Gokal was told that he violated protocol, but according to his lawyer, Paul Doyle, those protocols were never made clear.
Doyle said he reached out to the district attorney’s office and asked what protocols they were referencing in their case against Dr. Gokal.
“They responded to me [and said] this was a rushed event and they didn’t have written protocols in place at the time, and they didn’t have a written waitlist,” Doyle said. “So naturally, my response was and this is all in an email: ‘Under what theory are you presenting this case to a grand jury? And is there something I’m missing?’ And the answer is no.”
Gokal said he was told he should have brought the doses back to the office or thrown them away. He said he was questioned by a public health official whose name he did not disclose about why the names of those vaccinated all sounded “Indian.” He said officials were concerned they could be accused of improperly administering the vaccine.
Two weeks after Gokal was fired, Harris County’s district attorney, Kim Ogg, said she was pressing theft charges against him.
“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 a statement. “What he did was illegal and he’ll be held accountable under the law.”
Those charges were thrown out by criminal court judge Franklin Bynum for lack of probable cause. The Texas Medical Association and the Harris County Medical Society also released statements in support of Gokal, stressing that healthcare workers should not waste any doses of the vaccine.
Gokal said the DA’s office never tried to reach out to him to hear his version of the story. He said, at one point, he was accused of stealing more vaccine vials, but a recount of those on-hand proved none were missing.
“Basically they didn’t want to talk to him. They didn’t follow up on it until after they filed a sealed complaint along with the press release with all kinds of facts that were absolutely misrepresented,” Doyle said. “It was a bizarre sort of rush to fire him and then the follow-up rush to file charges on him, without anybody understanding what happened.”
The DA’s office has not responded to Insider’s requests for comment.
While Gokal says he wouldn’t change what he did, the consequences of his firing and subsequent criminal charges have made their way around the world and have impacted his family.
“On a very personal level. I’m OK with being attacked and having to defend myself. I’m OK. That’s part of what happens, but when it started to hurt my loved ones, that’s the first time I found myself with tears in my eyes because I realized this wasn’t just me; this was having an impact on everybody. So it’s been really hard,” Gokal said, explaining family members in Singapore, Pakistan, Dubai, and various other places all started getting calls about the news.
Harris County Public Health also contacted the medical board to initiate an investigation for unethical behavior. The department said it had no comment in response to a call from Insider.
As of Tuesday, The Texas Medical Board dismissed the cases against Gokal. On March 9, the governing body sent him a letter that said he “appeared to have administered doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to patients that were properly consented, in the eligible patient category, and they were given doses that would have otherwise been wasted,” a press release said.
Gokal is without a job until all of this is sorted out. However, he’s spent his time volunteering at a charity clinic.
“I’m donating my time to go there and see patients and take care of them while I can,” Gokal said.
“It gives me joy to do that. That’s part of what I’ve always been about anyway.”