Dr. Hasan Gokal, who was fired and charged with theft after administering some leftover COVID-19 vaccines, is speaking out.
He thought he was doing the right thing by administering them to those who were eligible and figured that it was better than letting them go to waste amid the grim realities of the pandemic, but the The Harris County Public Health Office didn’t see it the way.
Gokal, who worked as Texas' Harris County Public Health Department emergency response physician for the Office of Preparedness and was the medical director for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, told CBS News that he was in “absolute complete utter shock” at the agency’s response.
He added that their reaction to his decision was “mind-blowingly unexpected.”
The event occurred back in December 2020.
Following a vaccination event, Gokal had 10 doses of the Moderna vaccine leftover.
With a six-hour time limit on the doses, the Pakistanian doctor refused to throw them away and decided to administer them to those who were eligible.
When he couldn’t locate any event workers or emergency responders, he called the Harris County public health officials and got approval to give the doses to those in the next tier.
"This is a 5 million person county and we had the first 3,000 thousand doses. There was no room for throwing any of it out. Ever," he said. "When you have something so precious, life-saving, it would hurt you to throw it away."
He explained that since this was the first wave of vaccinations, there were no protocol’s from the country.
"They did not exist. This was a new scenario ... You don't have a precedence of this," he explained.
However, his understanding was that “we don't want any doses wasted. Period."
He sought out those that met the vaccine requirements under the state like those over 65 and with preexisting health conditions.
Eventually, Gokal gave the 10 vaccines to a mix of acquaintances and strangers including women in their 70s, two women that were bed-bound, and a mom with a child that uses a ventilator.
When one person canceled with 20 minutes left before the expiration, Gokal made the decision to administer the vaccine to his wife, who was deemed eligible by her doctor because of her pulmonary sarcoidosis.
Following the vaccinations, Gokal said he submitted all the proper paperwork and cleared the events of the night with his superiors the next day.
However, a week later, he was fired after human resources said he should have returned the doses regardless if they would have gone to waste.
They also took issue with the lack of “equity” explaining that there were too many Indian names on the list.
Eventually, the doctor was charged with theft and accused of breaking protocols by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.
"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. She said a week had passed before "he told a fellow Harris County Public Health employee, who then reported him to supervisors."
Gokal’s lawyer, Paul Doyle, said that the state was unable to give him copies of written protocols and said there wasn’t a written wait list.
While the charges were dismissed, the outlet notes that the district attorney still plans to pursue the case, which means Gokal could face up to a year in prison if indicted.
Gokal called the situation “devastating,” but explained that he “wouldn’t have done anything different” as he did not feel comfortable throwing the vaccines away.
"I wouldn't be a good physician if I said I regretted doing that,” he said.
He hopes that doctors will continue doing the “right thing,” especially with a shortage of vaccines.
"It's unfortunate I was the first one on the scene with this type of a situation and not several down the line, when they were realizing this should happen every time," he explained.
Gokal has the backing of the Texas Medical Association and the Harris County Medical Society.
"It is difficult to understand any justification for charging any well-intentioned physician in this situation with a criminal offense," their statement read.
While guidance may have been unclear in the first few months of the vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices issued guidance that advises against wasting a vaccine. The agency urged embracing “a flexible approach” when locating eligible people.
"The No. 1 rule is the vaccine cannot go to waste," said Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director of the division of epidemiology for Orange County in California emphasized.
He added: ”Have a reasonable plan to try in good faith to reach the most eligible people, but don't waste vaccine!"