The Texas doctor had six hours. Now that a vial of the Covid-19 vaccine had been opened overnight at the end of December, he had to find ten people to receive the remaining doses before the precious vaccine ran out. In six hours.
The doctor ran to some people’s homes and asked others to come to his home on the outskirts of Houston. Some were known to him, others were not. A woman over 90 in bed. A woman in the late 1980s with dementia. A mother with a child using a ventilator.
After midnight, with only a few minutes left for the vaccine to become unusable, the doctor in question, Hasan Gokal, gave the last dose to his wife, who suffers from a lung disease that makes her short of breath.
For his actions, Gokal was fired from his public sector job and criminally charged with stealing ten doses of the vaccine, worth a total of $ 135 (R $ 724) – a reprehensible misdemeanor that took his name away. and his photo across the planet.
“It was the collapse of my world,” Gokal said in a telephone interview. “I saw it all crumble on me. It was the worst time of my life.
Gokal’s story takes place at a time when Americans weary of the pandemic are scouring websites and traveling to other states in search of rumors, eagerly looking for a drug with scarce supply. His case is an invitation to interpretation and has become a “learn by doing” bioethics study of clumsy vaccine distribution in the United States.
At the end of January, a judge concluded that the accusation was unfounded. A local prosecutor then promised to take the case to a grand jury. And, as prosecutors present the doctor as a cold opportunist, his lawyer says he acted responsibly, even heroically.
“Everyone was looking at this man and saying, ‘My mom is waiting for the vaccine, my grandfather is waiting,’” attorney Paul Doyle said. “People thought ‘this guy is a bad guy’.”
On December 22, Gokal participated in a video conference in which state health officials explained the protocols for administering Moderna’s vaccine, which had recently been approved. The shelf life of ten or 11 doses in each vaccine vial is six hours after the seal is punctured.
Gokal said the recommendation he heard was to vaccinate people in category 1 (a) (healthcare professionals and residents of long-term care facilities) and then category 1 (b) (people over 65 years or have a health problem that increases the risk of severe symptoms associated with Covid-19).
After that, he said, the advice was, “Just apply the vaccine to people’s arms. We don’t want to run out of doses. End.”
On December 29, Gokal arrived before dawn at a park in Humble, a suburb of Houston, to lead a vaccination event primarily intended for emergency service professionals. Partly due to the low publicity of the event, the pace of participation was slow and no more than 250 doses were applied. But it was the first public vaccination event in the county, Gokal said. “We knew there would be little problems.”
At around 6:45 p.m., as the event was drawing to a close, someone arrived to be vaccinated. A nurse punctured a new vial to administer the vaccine, initiating the six-hour countdown to end the ten remaining doses in the vial.
The chances of ten people falling into the targeted categories of receiving the vaccine suddenly appeared low. It was already dark and the employees turned on the headlights of their cars to illuminate the place. But Gokal said he was determined not to miss a single dose.
He said he first invited the 20 or so employees who worked at the event. Some refused, others had already been vaccinated. The paramedics at the scene had already left, and of the two police officers present, one had been vaccinated and the other had rejected the doctor’s offer.
Gokal said he called the Harris County public health official in charge of operations to inform him of his plans to search for ten people to receive the remaining doses. The employee would have simply said “OK”.
He said he then called another colleague whose parents and in-laws were in the priority categories. He couldn’t find them.
Time was getting shorter.
The doctor figured that if he returned the open bottle to his ward office at that time, when the place would almost certainly be empty, the doses would be wasted. So, on his way home to a nearby county, Gokal started calling people on his cell phone’s contact list to ask if any family members or older neighbors needed to be vaccinated.
“No one I was intimately familiar with,” Gokal said. “I didn’t know any of these people very well.”
The next morning, he said, he presented documents relating to the ten people he had vaccinated the night before, including his wife. He said he informed his supervisor and colleagues of what he had done and explained why.
A few days later, Gokal said, this supervisor and the director of human resources asked him to ask if he had administered ten doses of the vaccine outside of the event scheduled for December 29. He said yes, following the guidelines not to waste the vaccine. He was summarily dismissed.
His superiors claimed that Gokal had violated protocol and that he should have returned the remaining doses to the office or thrown them out, the doctor recalled. He also said one of the employees surprised him by questioning the lack of “fairness” among those he vaccinated.
“Are you suggesting that there were a lot of Indian names in this group?” He asked Gokal.
“Exactly,” was the response.
Elizabeth Perez, director of communications for the Harris County Public Health Department, said the department was unable to make statements on its protocols, the Dec. 29 vaccination event or the Gokal case.
On January 21, about 15 days after the doctor was fired, a friend called him to tell him that a local reporter had just posted a tweet about him. At this precise moment, one of Gokal’s three sons went to open the door for someone who had rang the doorbell and came across spotlights and a microphone stuck in his face. Shaken, the 16-year-old closed the door and said, “Dad, there are people with cameras.”
This is how Gokal learned that he had been criminally charged with stealing doses of the vaccine.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg had just issued a press release with the headline: “Harris County Licensed Doctor Accused of Stealing Vials of Covid-19 Vaccine.”
The document claimed that Gokal “stole the bottle” and flouted county protocols to ensure that vaccines are not wasted and given to people who are eligible and on a waiting list. “He abused his position to put his friends and family on the front line, ahead of the people who had gone through the regular process to be there,” Ogg said.
But Gokal said no one from the prosecution had ever contacted him to hear his side of the story. And when his lawyer asked for copies of the written protocols and the waiting list mentioned in the complaint, a prosecutor told him in an email that there were no written protocols from the end of December, nor that no written waiting list had been found.
Days later, a criminal court judge Franklin Bynum dismissed the complaint for lack of probable cause.
“In the number of words commonly used to describe an allegation of shoplifting, the state, for the first time, seeks to criminalize the documented administration of doses of vaccine by a physician during a public health emergency “he writes. “The court categorically rejects this attempt to impose criminal law on a doctor’s professional decisions.”
The Texas Medical Association and the Harris County Medical Society recently released a statement in favor of doctors like Gokal, who must run “to avoid wasting vaccines in a punctured vial.”
“It is difficult to understand the justification presented for criminalizing any well-meaning doctor who finds himself in this situation,” the statement said.
Dane Schiller, director of communications for the prosecution, declined to answer questions about the case. He said in an email that when the matter goes to the grand jury, “community representatives will be able to vote on whether a criminal indictment is warranted.”
In the meantime, Gokal says, he continues to pay the price for not wasting vaccines during a pandemic. Reporting what happened to him, his voice failed.
He lost his job. Your wife cannot sleep. Your children are concerned. And hospitals told him not to come back until his case was decided.
He spends his time volunteering at a non-profit health clinic for patients without medical insurance. And he lives in awe all the time when he realizes that whatever the outcome, the story will flow outside: the story of that Pakistani doctor from Houston who stole all those vaccines.
“How can I reverse this?” He asked.