HOUSTON — A Houston doctor accused of stealing a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine from a Harris County Public Health District distribution site last year and giving it to family and friends is sharing his story of what happened.
Dr. Hasan Gokal was fired from the county’s health district for allegedly taking doses of the vaccine off-site.
He argues the shots were going to go to waste so he found people who met the state’s qualifications for the vaccine before the vial shelf life expired.
Dr. Gokal has been practicing medicine since 2001.
He worked in Houston since 2009 at different hospitals like Houston Methodist and Memorial Hermann.
When COVID-19 cases started to rise, Dr. Gokal said he was being exposed to the virus.
He was afraid of getting his family, especially his wife, sick.
“It was just too dangerous,” Dr. Gokal said. “We didn’t know how bad this could be especially with her respiratory issues. I didn’t want to risk it. I actually stayed in a hotel for a month.”
In April 2020, Dr. Gokal joined HCPHD as the emergency response physician for the Office of Preparedness.
He helped bridge the gap between government policy and medicine, and provided guidance so the health district could do it properly.
Dr. Gokal was also the medical director for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout for the county.
On Dec. 29, 2020, the county opened its first vaccination site.
“The first time we had done any kind of public vaccination event,” he said.
Dr. Gokal said people who met the state’s 1A and 1B criteria were eligible for the shot.
Many of the people who showed up to the event at Lindsay/Lyons Park had preregistered.
When asked if HCPHD had given him any guidance on what to do with leftover vaccines, Dr. Gokal said, “On the day that this occurred that; there was no such policy in place at that point.”
He chose to follow what the Texas Department of State Health Services suggests frontline workers do with doses at risk of expiring.
“In the event you get leftover with any vaccine, don’t waste any," Dr. Gokal said. "Go find people who are eligible in that tier. If you can’t find any go to the next tier. If you can’t find that give it to anybody who’s willing and able to take it.”
Furthermore, he said it was the most appropriate guidance he could rely on in the absence of specific county rules.
Dr. Gokal said a new vial of the Moderna vaccine containing 11 doses was punctured to administer the shot to one person.
He said the remaining 10 doses needed to be in arms within six hours or they would need to be thrown out.
After checking with first responders at the distribution site with no luck, Dr. Gokal started going through his phone and reached out to people who may qualify or who may know someone who does.
He was able to identify ten people who met the state’s vaccine requirements.
Dr. Gokal said the first two doses were given to two women in their 70s.
Next, four doses were administered to a household of people in their 80s and 90s who were homebound. Their children in their 70s and who suffered from medical conditions also received the shot.
The doctor said he traveled to an acquaintance’s home and gave a shot to their neighbor who qualified.
With three remaining shots, he returned home. Two more people who were eligible to receive the shot showed up. The third person canceled.
Dr. Gokal said with minutes to spare, he gave the last shot to his wife.
“My wife is a 1B, because she’s been in and out of hospital for the last 18 months several times because of a lung condition,” he said.
Dr. Gokal said he submitted all the paperwork the next day and notified his team of what he did.
He said a week after giving out the vaccines, he was fired for taking the vaccines off-site.
“The extent of the investigation or asking me about it was just that. That’s it. There was nothing else,” Dr. Gokal said.
At first he thought it was a misunderstanding.
“My background is emergency medicine,” he said. “You do what you have to do to save that life no matter what.”
He’s not sure he did anything wrong.
“As a doctor I can’t just accept that and walk away from what my heart tells me is the right thing to do,” Dr. Gokal said.
Dr. Gokal didn’t know the Harris County District Attorney’s Office had charged him with theft until Jan. 21.
“I got a screenshot of a tweet, and I believe that tweet was from you just saying that a physician in the Harris County, physician has been charged,” Dr. Gokal said. “It was the toughest day I’ve ever had. It was the lowest point in my life.”
In addition, he said, “I’m watching it come down in a matter of minutes. It was just unbelievable. I have no words.”
He said, “It was a huge relief at that moment. It wasn’t long lived but it helped me recognize there might be hope moving forward.”
Also, Dr. Gokal is humbled by the community’s support but said his career has been tarnished around the world by the accusation.
“I’ve spent as many years keeping my reputation and my conduct as clean as I can and this is a challenge,” the doctor said.
Dr. Gokal doesn’t want other doctors to lose their moral compass when it comes to making decisions.
He said a physician’s judgment shouldn’t be criminalized.
When asked if he regretted his decision on Dec. 29, 2020, Dr. Gokal responded, “As far as throwing away the doses versus giving them away to the people who deserved them, I think I wouldn’t be a good physician if I said I regretted doing that.”
The Harris County DA's Office said all the evidence will be presented to a grand jury who will decide if there is enough probable cause to file charges.