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Doctor Had 6 Hours To Give 10 Doses Of Coronavirus Vaccine Before It Expired — Then, He Was Fired For It

Photo: Sabrina Bracher / Shutterstock
Covid-19 vaccine being administered

Houston doctor, Hasan Gokal, had about six hours on a late December night to administer 10 doses of the recently approved Moderna vaccine.

His heroic actions that night saw him being fired from his government job and criminally charged for his actions.

The roughly 10 to 11 doses of the Moderna vaccine in a vial are viable for six hours after the seal is punctured.

On Dec. 29 at 6:45 p.m., an eligible person arrived for their vaccine at the park in the Houston suburb, Humble, where Dr. Gokal was to supervise the vaccination event. It was intended mostly for emergency workers and it was the county's first public event.

A nurse at the event punctured the vial to administer the vaccine.

This activated the six-hour time limit and the race against time was on as Dr. Gokul had to find 10 other people to administer the vaccine to before it expired.

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The doctor was not going to let the odds be against him.

Dr. Gokul knew that the odds of 10 eligible people showing up for vaccinations that late in the evening were going to be faint. 

He said that he went around the event to seek out and ask the event workers, paramedics, and police officers if they needed or wanted the vaccine. They either declined or were already vaccinated.

As the hours were counting down, the doctor knew that taking the vial back to his department’s certain empty office would be a waste.

He decided to drive home and source his phone’s contact list to see if there was anyone who had older relatives or neighbors who needed the vaccination.

“No one I was really intimately familiar with,” Dr. Gokal said about who he called. “I wasn’t that close to anyone.”

After driving around and getting anyone with health conditions and people at risk of severe Covid-related illness, he was down to three vaccinations left to go. As he was arriving back home, he was expecting the three last people to be waiting at his home. There were only two.

After the final person canceled on him and with the clocking ticking towards midnight already, he did what any husband would do. He turned to his wife, Maria.

His 47-year-old wife has pulmonary sarcoidosis, which is a disease in the lungs that leaves her out of breath after minimal activity.

He recalls telling his wife: “I didn’t intend to give this to you, but in a half-hour, I’m going to have to dump this down the toilet. It’s as simple as that.”

With 15 minutes before the expiration time, Dr. Gokul administered the last Moderna dose to his wife.

After submitting the paperwork for the people he vaccinated, he was summoned days later by his supervisor and the human resources director where he was questioned and then later fired.

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How did Dr. Gokul find himself in this stressful situation?

The 48-year-old doctor earned his medical degree at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. After working for some time in Central New York hospitals, he moved to Texas in 2009 to oversee the emergency department at a hospital in suburban Houston.

Early in 2020, when Covid-19 first hit, Dr. Gokal began living in a hotel and an apartment so as to prevent putting his wife at risk.

In April, the Harris County Public Health department recruited him for the position of medical director for their Covid-response team. Dr. Gokul saw the opportunity as a good one, even with the job paying less because he would be working in emergency rooms, which meant less risk of exposure to his wife.

“I was petrified to go home and bring Covid to my wife,” Dr. Gokul said.

Dr. Gokul joined a conference on Dec. 22 where state health officials explained the protocols for the administration of the Moderna vaccine. He said the message was clear: “Just put it in people’s arms. We don’t want any doses to go to waste. Period.”

This would be the underlying factor in a decision that would put him on national headlines a week later.

The court ruled in favor of Dr. Gokul.

The Harris County’s district attorney, Kim Ogg, issued a news release soon after where it alleged that Dr. Gokul “stole the vial” and disregarded the protocol that was in place to put “friends and family in line in front of people who had gone through the lawful process.”

Days later, Franklin Bynum, who is the criminal court judge, dismissed the case for lack of probable cause. 

The Harris County Medical Society and the Texas Medical Association issued a statement in support of Dr. Gokul and physicians alike.

“It is difficult to understand any justification for charging any well-intentioned physician in this situation with a criminal offense,” the statement said.

Dr. Gokul said he still pays the price for not wasting any of the vaccines from the Moderna vial.

The hospital has told him that he is not to return until the case is resolved.

His wife is struggling to sleep and his children are worried. The jobless doctor is using his time to volunteer at a nonprofit health clinic for the uninsured.

He fears he will now be remembered as the doctor from Houston who stole vaccines.

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Tomás Diniz Santos is a writer living in Orlando, Florida. He covers news, entertainment, and pop-culture topics.