This Monday, July 27, 2020, a nurse prepares a syringe while investigating a potential COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc. in Binghamton, NY
An attorney for a former Harris County public health doctor accused of stealing a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine vial for friends and family said Friday the man tried to administer doses before they expired .
Dr. Hasan Gokal was fired earlier this month for allegedly stealing the vial while working at an HCPH vaccination center in Lindsay / Lyons Park in Humble on December 29, Harris County prosecutors said.
In one indictment, prosecutors alleged that Gokal took the vial off the site and used it to give doses to friends and family members, including his wife. He has been charged with theft by an officer, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to one year in prison and a fine of $ 4,000.
During a virtual press conference on Friday, Gokal’s attorney Paul Doyle said the doctor had followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines by trying to use doses that would otherwise have been wasted and that he was not giving anyone preferential treatment have .
“Instead of throwing it away, he did everything possible,” said Doyle. “He did everything as an officer.”
According to Doyle, traffic at the Humble site had subsided when a final patient showed up. In order to deliver a dose, the lawyer said doctors had to pierce a new vial of the vaccine, which has a shelf life of six hours.
Fearing the leftover doses would exceed this shelf life, Gokal began looking for people who met criteria for vaccination under the state’s Phase 1 plan, his lawyer said.
Not knowing what to do, the doctor reached out to friends and neighbors who referred him to other qualified people, Doyle said. He administered the vaccine to at least eight of these people – most of whom were acquaintances – after hours and gave a final dose on his wife, who suffered from pulmonary sarcoid, 15 minutes before the vaccine expired, lawyer said.
The patients were then entered into a state database on Dec. 30, Doyle said.
Gokal’s father, who also qualified under state guidelines, was not one of the vaccinated, which Doyle cited as evidence that the doctor did not give preferential treatment to people around him.
“If he had tried to take care of his family and friends, and that was his MO, his father would surely have been vaccinated,” said Doyle.
Gokal was later fired. After he contacted a local law firm to file a wrongful dismissal complaint, he was informed of the charges. The doctor later turned himself in, although Doyle said he was never contacted during the exam.
“If these doctors are prosecuted for trying to use leftover vaccines, there will always be more waste than there is already,” the lawyer said. “That wasn’t well thought out.”
The indictment, however, denies the lawyer’s version of the events.
According to an affidavit from HCPH Director Michael McClendon, Gokal was told that logs were already in place to ensure the vaccine was not wasted. According to these protocols, residual doses are supposed to be given to vulnerable frontline workers, including health care workers, firefighters and police officers. After that, there’s a second waiting list to make sure the cans aren’t going to waste, according to McClendon.
On January 6, Gokal disclosed the details of his plan to another HCPH employee who, according to an affidavit, immediately notified the director.
According to court documents, the employee feared the department could lose funding because of Gokal’s actions.
Harris County Public Health put questions to the DA office. In a statement, Harris County Attorney Kim Ogg said Gokal had disregarded pre-existing protocols to ensure vulnerable populations and frontline workers received all remaining doses of the vaccine.
“He has abused his position to put his friends and family in front of people who had gone through the legal process to be there,” Ogg said. “What he did was illegal and he will be held accountable under the law.”
Additional coverage from Myrakel Baker, intern at Houston Public Media.
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