Criminal Justice

Harris County Grand Jury Declines To Indict Doctor Accused Of Stealing Vaccines

Former Harris County Public Health employee Dr. Hasan Gokal was fired earlier this year after allegedly swiping a vial of the vaccine and administering doses off site.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File (INSET: Harris County Public Health)
Dr. Hasan Gokal was fired and later charged with stealing vaccines that he said he had to use before they went to waste. A grand jury declined to indict the doctor on June 30, 2021.

A grand jury on Wednesday declined to indict a Harris County doctor accused of stealing vaccine doses.

Former Harris County Public Health employee Dr. Hasan Gokal was fired earlier this year after allegedly swiping a vial of the vaccine and administering doses off site. But he and his lawyer, Paul Doyle, have insisted that the doses were going to be thrown out if they weren’t used in time.

Gokal on Wednesday told Houston Public Media that he’s relieved by the grand jury’s decision, and stands by the choice he made six months ago.

“It is my duty as a physician to err on the side of human life,” he said. “In this case, I saw 10 doses about to get tossed out, and I chose to err on the side of human life and get those out to people in the high vulnerable categories.”

The news was confirmed by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday.

“We respect the decision of the grand jury in this and every case,” read a statement from DA Kim Ogg. “Evidence, not public opinion, is the guiding principle of our work.”

According to the indictment, Gokal was working for Harris County Public Health at a vaccination site in Humble when he took extra doses of the vaccine to administer off site on Dec 29.

The DA argued that Harris County’s policy was to administer the extra doses to at-risk front-line workers, followed by people on a second waiting list. Instead, prosecutors said he administered them to friends and family. Gokal was fired and charged with theft by a public servant, which carried a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

But Gokal’s lawyer maintained that the vaccine was set to expire and go to waste.

On the evening of Dec. 29, the doctor said one last patient showed up before closing, forcing him to puncture a new vial of the vaccine and start its six-hour shelf life. That’s when Gokal said he began searching for people who met the criteria for vaccination under what was at the time the state's limited Phase 1 plan — front-line health care workers and people with preexisting conditions.

Kim Ogg
Andrew Schneider / Houston Public Media
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in 2019.

The doctor said he reached out to friends and neighbors, and found some people who qualified, administering eight of the 10 doses after hours. But with 15 minutes to spare before the vaccine hit its shelf life he said used a dose on his wife, who had pulmonary sarcoidosis.

In taking the vaccines after hours, the lawyer said Gokal was following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and administering the doses to qualified recipients.

On Wednesday, Gokal said he’s spent the last six months working with a charity clinic and as a local emergency room physician, with Houston Methodist Hospital and Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital. But the doctor said he’s found it hard to fully focus on work, because of the legal situation hanging over his head.

“Knowing that I had done what I believed was the right thing, but recognizing that there was someone who felt that there was legal jeopardy and so forth, it made for a very nerve-wracking six months,” he said. “And it wasn’t just me as a family as well. They all kind of shared with the same nervousness and anticipation anxiety.”

A Harris County judge first dismissed the case in January, rejecting what he said was the DA’s office "novel theory" that the vaccinations amounted to theft.

“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,” the judge’s order said. “The Court emphatically rejects this attempted imposition of the criminal law on the professional decisions of a physician.”

Gokal said he’s not ready to determine if he will take legal action against his former employer. But his attorney, Paul Doyle, called the DA’s investigation “completely incompetent,” and he hoped that both the DA’s office and the public health department would be forced to answer questions about his firing and the attempt to prosecute.

“I think it’s a little bit early for Dr. Gokal to determine what he wants to do,” he said. “I know what I would do: I’d come after all of them.”

Despite what he characterized as an unfair termination, Gokal added that he still respects many of the people who still work at HCPH, and the work they do. And he said he’s thankful for the surprising outpouring of support from across the country.

“Despite having run into a handful of bad people who disagreed with me, I ran into more good-hearted, good people than I would have ever imagined,” Gokal said. “These are not people that that I know or anything. These are complete unknowns, from different states, people who can’t pronounce my name. You know that that has really made a tremendous impact on the way I look at us as one community of humanity, and I can’t be more humble or more thankful.”

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