HOUSTON (CN) — A Pakistani doctor fired by a Texas county’s public health agency for giving people shots with 10 doses of leftover Covid vaccine before it spoiled sued the county Tuesday for more than $1 million.
Dr. Hasan Gokal, 48, says after Harris County Public Health fired him, it filed complaints against him with the Texas Medical Board and prosecutors in the county seat Houston, falsely alleging he had stolen vials of the vaccine and administered it to his friends and family, and he was charged with misdemeanor theft by a public servant.
He claims the agency discriminated against him due to his race and national origin in violation of the Texas Labor Code, as its personnel director told him he “did not ‘equitably’ distribute the vaccine and gave the vaccine to too many individuals with ‘Indian’ sounding names.”
Gokal says the agency hired him in April 2020 to lead its response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Harris County.
Days after the Food and Drug Administration approved Moderna’s Covid vaccine for emergency use last December, Gokal says, he joined a conference call held by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“During the call, Dr. Jennifer Shuford [DSHS’s chief epidemiologist] directed all health departments in Texas to not waste any vaccine and explained that if there are not people who qualify and vial is punctured, to make sure the vaccine is still used, no matter what,” according to the lawsuit, filed in Harris County District Court.
The Moderna vaccine must be stored frozen at no more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit in a light-proof container, and once a vial is thawed out and opened it should be thrown away in 12 hours – if no one is available to receive the shots – and cannot be refrozen, Moderna advises.
The state health department’s advice was fresh in Gokal’s mind as he oversaw Harris County opening its Covid vaccine distribution at 7 a.m. on Dec. 29.
Twelve hours later, Gokal says in his lawsuit, the site closed and there were 10 doses left in a punctured vial.
He tried to find willing takers at the site. He asked two policemen and several health staff members “of various races and ethnicity,” but everyone had either already been vaccinated or declined to get the shot, as recounted in the complaint.
Gokal says he called his boss and told him he was going to find people to inoculate, and his boss replied, “OK good.”
Driving home, Gokal says, he called around and arranged to give the shots to 10 people, strangers and acquaintances, who were all at risk for serious health complications from the virus, including a woman in her 80s with dementia and a bedridden person in their 90s.
“Dr. Gokal initially inoculated two individuals at his home,” the complaint states. “He then traveled to the homes of five other individuals to give them the vaccine. After returning home, he immunized two additional people. The last individual Dr. Gokal had lined up couldn’t make it prior to the vaccine spoiling.”
Gokal’s wife suffers from a lung disease that causes labored breathing, so he decided to give her the last shot.
The next day Gokal filled out paperwork documenting who he had immunized with the leftover doses and gave it to the health department's Covid-19 immunization team for entry into the county’s and state’s databases.
A week later, Harris County Public Health’s human resources director and director of public health preparedness blindsided him, according to the lawsuit.
Gokal alleges they called him into a meeting supposedly to discuss employee recruitment, then accused him of stealing the vaccine and giving it to “too many individuals with ‘Indian’ sounding names,” and said he should have thrown it away instead, though the agency had not yet signed anybody up on a shot wait list or established any protocols on how to handle leftover vaccines.
The doctor claims they abruptly fired him without getting his side of the story and escorted him out of the building, and then Harris County Public Health set out to damage his reputation.
Seeking to get his medical license stripped, it filed a complaint with the Texas Medical Board. But the board sided with Gokal, finding he had administered doses that would otherwise have been wasted.
Not stopping there, the health department convinced prosecutors to bring theft charges against Gokal with a series of lies, he says, falsely claiming he had stolen multiple vials of the vaccine, had violated a protocol to return leftover doses to its offices, had plans to steal more vaccines, and was shorting doses when administering the shots.
A judge dismissed the charge on Jan. 25. Prosecutors then tried to convince a grand jury to indict Gokal but it chose not to, signing a discharge order June 30 due to a lack of probable cause.
Gokal is represented by Joseph Ahmad of the Houston firm Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi and Mensing.
The doctor’s ordeal was reported by multiple news outlets and Ahmad said the exposure has made it difficult for him to find another job in his preferred field of public health. He is now working 12-hour shifts as an independent emergency room doctor.
“As you might imagine, it’s difficult given the fact that virtually everybody knows what happened to him … Because he’s now working grueling ER shifts, which is one of the nice things he liked at this job, as medical director at Harris County Public Health, was he wasn’t having to work those grueling ER shifts,” Ahmad said.
The attorney added Gokal would like to stay in the Houston area because his family is here and said he doesn’t believe moving anywhere else would help his job prospects.
“The news about Dr. Gokal has spread so far and wide that I don’t know that it matters whether he’s in Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles or Rawalpindi, Pakistan. It spread so far and wide it’s just attached to his name,” Ahmad said.
The Harris County Attorney's Office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Follow Cameron Langford on Twitter
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.