By JOANNE ROSA, ABC News
(HOUSTON) — Dr. Hasan Gokal defended his decision to give away COVID-19 vaccines that were on the verge of expiring even after he was fired from his job as medical director of the Harris County Public Health department in Texas over the decision.
The Houston doctor said he had an open vial with 10 doses of Moderna’s vaccine that were ready to expire that day in December 2020 when, rather than wasting them, he rushed to find people who were eligible to take them. He was subsequently fired, charged with theft by a public servant and accused of breaking county protocols by the district attorney. A judge later dismissed the charges.
Gokal spoke to “The View” co-hosts on Wednesday to share his side of the story and discuss his reasoning behind the decision.
Moderna’s vaccines have a shelf-life of six hours once the vials are opened. With time running out, Gokal said he went around asking his staff if anyone needed to be vaccinated, but nobody there wanted it or needed it.
“In the absence of having any other options, I contacted people who I thought would be eligible or would know somebody who would be eligible,” he told “The View.”
Gokal said he only arranged for people to receive the doses after “having a discussion” with “one of the directors of Harris County” to “make sure they knew” what he was going to do.
All of the people who were given doses fell within the eligibility guidelines, meeting various criteria from age to having health issues that could cause a more severe case of COVID-19, he said. The day after Gokal gave them the shots, he said he handed in the appropriate paperwork and explained what he did, but he was fired a week later.
“I didn’t think it was real. I just thought there was a misunderstanding,” Gokal said. “From a moral perspective, from the doing-the-right-thing perspective, I did what I believe was expected.”
In a Jan. 21 press release from Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, she said that a week had passed before “he told a fellow Harris County Public Health employee, who then reported him to supervisors.”
Gokal said that he wasn’t only following his own intuition, but guidance from the Texas Department of State Health Services, too. He said the agency advised him not to waste any vaccine doses and “give it to any eligible people you can” when appropriate.
He also said that he administered the vaccine doses on the first day that Harris County began vaccinating the public.
“We didn’t have any precedence of this,” Gokal said. “However, as time has gone on, we have precedence. We know people are learning. They’re doing the right thing all over the country.”
“There’s hope,” he added. “We’re learning and we’re starting to do better with each day.”
Among those who received the soon-to-expire doses of the vaccine was his wife, who has the lung disease pulmonary sarcoidosis. Gokal said it “was not an easy decision” to give her the dose and that he “had no intention of giving it to her to begin with.”
“The 10 people that I had slated to get it that night were not family, not even friends,” Gokal said. “They were acquaintances and people who knew them.”
Gokal said he decided to give his wife a dose when he realized the last person slated to receive it didn’t appear and about 20 minutes remained before the vaccine expired. Gokal felt like he “didn’t have a choice,” he said.
“Although I know that my wife was very much eligible — actually probably more than many of the others that got it — the reality was that I wanted to make sure that we did things the right way,” Gokal said.
“I had every intention of getting her the vaccine at a time [that was] appropriate, through the appropriate channels,” he added. “But look, I got a vaccine … and I have somebody who is highly eligible for it here, even though it’s my own wife.”
Gokal said that his wife had been “in and out of the hospital” due to her condition and chest surgery.
When it came time to administer the vaccine, Gokal said his wife “looked back at me and said, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ I said, ‘Hon, this is actually absolutely the right thing to do."”
Harris County’s District Attorney Kim Ogg has said her office still plans to bring his case before a grand jury, according to The New York Times.
“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 in the Jan. 21 press release. “What he did was illegal and he’ll be held accountable under the law.”
The Texas Medical Association and Harris County Medical Society issued a statement earlier this month in support of doctors like Gokal who are scrambling “to avoid wasting the vaccine in a punctured vial.”
“There is much more to the story than just a doctor who’s trying to take advantage of a situation and going to give it to friends and family,” Gokal said. “That’s not what happened.”
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