No indictment for doctor accused of COVID-19 vaccine theft
HOUSTON (AP) — A grand jury on Wednesday declined to indict a former Houston-area health department doctor who was accused of stealing nine doses of coronavirus vaccine from a damaged vial and administering them to family and friends.
Prosecutors had alleged that Dr. Hasan Gokal, who worked for Harris County Public Health, stole a vial of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine while working at a vaccination site at a suburban Houston park on Dec. 29. His attorney said Gokal was only trying to save lives by using doses that would have been thrown away.
But grand jurors in Harris County, where Houston is located, decided no criminal charges were warranted. The grand jury’s decision comes after a judge in January dismissed a theft charge prosecutors had filed against Gokal.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Gokal, 48, said when he was confronted with the possibility that a life saving vaccine could be lost, he made the decision to find eligible people late at night who could be given the expiring doses.
“I came as a practicing ER doctor into public health and as an ER doctor, I err on the side of life and that’s how I chose to make my decision,” he said. “It was the right thing to do and it meant saving more lives.”
Paul Doyle, Gokal’s attorney, criticized the decision by prosecutors to pursue charges, saying Gokal’s supervisor had approved his plan for the leftover vaccine doses.
“There is no other case that I know of in the country where a doctor went above and beyond and was persecuted for it,” Doyle said.
Doyle said hundreds of medical professionals and others had written letters, sent emails and made phone calls in support of Gokal’s actions.
“We respect the decision of the grand jury in this and every case. Evidence, not public opinion, is the guiding principle of our work,” the Harris County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement.
Harris County Public Health, Gokal’s former employer, declined to comment, referring all questions to the district attorney’s office.
In January, prosecutors filed a misdemeanor theft charge against Gokal, who was fired after the health department conducted an internal investigation.
A judge later dismissed the theft charge, ruling there was no probable cause in the case. Harris County Court-At-Law Judge Franklin Bynum criticized prosecutors, saying their probable cause complaint was “riddled with sloppiness and errors.”
After the dismissal, prosecutors presented the case to the grand jury.
While he felt relief and happiness after learning about the grand jury’s decision, Gokal said the ordeal has taken a toll on his family, as his wife’s health has been impacted and his children’s grades suffered.
Gokal said he would still like to work in some capacity in public health but worries the theft accusation has put this in danger. Since he was fired by the county health department, he has worked part time in the emergency departments at two Houston hospitals.
“For the time being, I’m not going hungry and my family is doing OK,” he said.
Gokal said he and his family, including his two daughters and son, have been grateful for the outpouring of support they have received.
“So many people reached out, helped in different ways, from GoFundMe (donations) to prayers and messages. I’ve been so overwhelmed by that,” he said.
In March, the Texas Medical Board dismissed an investigation against Gokal, saying 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.”
The board also found there were no protocols for Gokal to follow and he relied on state guidance to not waste the vaccine.
In Wisconsin, a former pharmacist who purposefully ruined more than 500 doses of COVID-19 vaccine was sentenced to three years in prison on June 8.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70