Attorney for doctor accused of stealing COVID-19 vaccine says DA investigation false, client was following CDC, health guidelines

The attorney of a Harris County Public Health doctor held a news conference Friday to address the allegations accusing him of stealing a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in a news release Thursday.

According to Ogg’s release, Dr. Hasan Gokal stole the vial that contained nine doses while working at the county vaccination site at Lyndsay Lyons Park in Humble on Dec. 29, 2020.

The release said that a week later, he told a fellow Harris County Public Health employee, who then reported him to supervisors. However, Paul Doyle, the attorney on record for Gokal, said that is incorrect and his client was not given a chance to give his side of the story.

Doyle said each vial of the Moderna vaccine has between 10 or 11 doses, and while it has a long shelf life, once punctured, the vial has about six hours to be used.

According to Doyle, Gokal had been administering vaccines and overseeing a vaccination site on Dec. 29. The event started at 7 a.m. and by 6:30 p.m. the crowd had started to thin. As they were wrapping up the event a person who qualified for the vaccine arrived and a new vial had to be punctured, leaving 10 doses that now had to be used in a small time frame, Doyle said.

Officials said Gokal “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. What he did was illegal and he’ll be held accountable under the law.”

However, Doyle said that statement is false. Gokal did everything in his power to get the vaccine to those people who qualified for it. First, he asked people who were working at the vaccination site with him, then he reached out to law enforcement before finally reaching out to a director at the Harris County Public Health Department who he knew had elderly relatives.

According to Doyle, Gokal had been given the guidance by local officials and the CDC to not waste a single dose, so when none of the options panned out Doyle said Gokal -- who did not have a patient list -- began searching his phone to find someone who qualified and could get the vaccine in the next six hours.

Some of the people who received a dose of the vaccine included a 93-year-old bed-bound woman, an 86-year-old woman with severe dementia and a 40-year-old with comorbidities who is also the sole provider for an intubated child. Of those who received the vaccine, most were acquaintances of an acquaintance, and only one was directly related to him.

Doyle said he administered the final dose to his wife (who falls under phase 1B) around 11:45 p.m. with only about 15 minutes remaining in the six-hour shelf life of the vaccine, and he only did so because there was no other option and he did not want to waste the dose.

According to Doyle, if Gokal had really intended to put his friends and family first, he would have vaccinated not only his wife but also his 76-year-old father who could not get a vaccine due to appointments being booked.

A probable cause affidavit obtained by KPRC2 states that Gokal took the vaccines in question “off-site” from the Dec 29th, event in Humble, an event that served between 250-300 people according to Doyle. A Harris County Public Health adminstrator stated that there are protocols in place to deal with unused vaccines and open vials, and those protocols were not followed.

Ogg’s release said Gokal waited a week to tell a co-worker what he did with the doses, but Doyle said his client went to the office, followed the procedures, informed his team what he did with the extra doses and entered the information into the internal system the following morning.

However, despite following procedures and taking necessary steps, Gokal was fired on Jan. 8 by his supervisors, who told him the mishandling of the vaccine could result in the loss of government funding for the county, which sparked the investigation into the accusation.

When he was fired, Doyle said Gokal asked what he was expected to do with extra doses and they said, “You should have thrown it away. This could cost us our ability to get future vaccines.”

Gokal reportedly responded with, “That’s not the right thing to do,” and Doyle said his supervisors responded by saying, “It doesn’t matter, you’re terminated.”

Doyle said if his supervisors deny those claims during the trial, he will ask Ogg to prosecute them for perjury.

“I also want to point out a comment the secretary of health made where he indicated that it’s more important to get people vaccinated than to perfectly march through the prioritized,’” Doyle said. " If these doctors... are going to get criminally prosecuted for trying to use leftover vaccines, there is going to be more and more waste than there already is.”

Gokal faces a Class A Misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. He is being prosecuted by the Public Corruption Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

About the Authors:

Daniela Sternitzky-Di Napoli has been a digital news editor at KPRC 2 since 2018. She is a published poet and has background in creative writing and journalism. Daniela has covered events like Hurricane Harvey and the Astros World Series win. In her spare time, Daniela is an avid reader and loves to spend time with her two miniature dachshunds.