South Asian doctor fired after giving expiring vaccines, sues Texas county for race and national origin discrimination

Dr. Hasan Gokal. Photo: Twitter @gokalmd

When a coronavirus vaccine site in Humble, Texas, shut down at 7 p.m. on Dec. 29, 2020, Dr. Hasan Gokal began a race with the clock to distribute 10 leftover Moderna doses before the vial expired.

The doctor, with permission from his supervisor, phoned elderly and at-risk patients who were eligible to receive the shot in the earliest phases of the nationwide vaccine rollout. He found 10 people with underlying health conditions who said they would take the vaccine doses. Over the next five hours, Gokal drove around the Houston area to distribute the vaccine to nine people. He couldn’t reach the 10th person before the vaccine vial would expire, so Gokal gave the last dose to his wife, who has a lung disease that affects her breathing.

The doctor believed he was doing the right thing after Jennifer Shuford, chief epidemiologist with the Texas Department of State Health Services, warned physicians not to waste the shots and said it was even acceptable to give leftover doses to ineligible people if the vaccines would otherwise expire.

But on Jan. 7, Harris County Public Health fired Gokal for doling out the shots. Officials within the county health department then shared false information with the local district attorney’s office, the lawsuit said, spurring prosecutors to bring criminal charges against Gokal for allegedly stealing vaccine vials and giving shots to friends and family. That month, he was charged with theft by a public servant, a misdemeanor that was ultimately dismissed.

On Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021, Gokal sued Harris County Public Health for wrongfully firing him, orchestrating a “misinformation campaign” aimed at stripping him of his medical license, and discriminating against the doctor based on his race and national origin. Harris County Public Health did not immediately return a request for comment from The Washington Post early Wednesday.

The termination and subsequent efforts to pursue criminal charges against Gokal left him struggling to find a new job in public health, he said.

“If you Google my name, you’ll see ‘doctor theft,’ ‘doctor theft,’ so on and so forth,” Gokal told KTRK on Tuesday.

According to the lawsuit, a human resources director allegedly told the doctor that he “did not ‘equitably’ distribute the vaccine and gave the vaccine to too many individuals with ‘Indian’ sounding names.” Gokal’s attorney told KTRK that the 10 individuals Gokal was able to reach before the vaccine expired “happen to be South Asian.” Gokal, who is from Pakistan, sought out at-risk patients “without race in mind,” according to the suit. Instead, it adds, he tried to ensure that the extra doses went to people who were particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus because of underlying health conditions.

The lawsuit said that Harris County Public Health failed to properly investigate the allegations made against Gokal. The department “never interviewed Dr. Gokal, never took his statement, never asked for his side of the story, conducted no internal investigation of the matter, and never sought to get the facts straight,” the lawsuit states.

Gokal has flatly denied accusations made against him, including the claim that he gave the leftover doses to people close to himself.

“The only individual that qualifies as a ‘friend’ or ‘family’ that received the vaccine is his wife, who Dr. Gokal did not give the vaccine to until time had nearly run out and with no one else available to receive the last vaccine dose,” the lawsuit said.

The suit also alleges that individuals within the public health department sought to malign Gokal’s reputation and pursued “a revenge campaign rooted in discriminatory-based disdain.” The suit claims that members of the department sought to further punish Gokal by allegedly sharing false allegations with prosecutors and attempting to persuade the Texas Medical Board to revoke the doctor’s medical license.

“Upon receiving Dr. Gokal’s side of the story and the evidence he submitted, the Texas Medical Board immediately dismissed the complaint on March 9, 2021,” the lawsuit said. “The Texas Medical Board stated that Dr. Gokal ‘administered doses of the coronavirus vaccine to patients that were properly consented, in the eligible patient category, and they were given doses that would have otherwise been wasted.'”

A judge similarly dismissed a criminal charge leveled against Gokal on Jan. 25, stating that the prosecution’s affidavit was “riddled with sloppiness and errors.” Prosecutors continued to pursue charges for several months, but a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Gokal in June.

Although Gokal was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing by the courts and the medical board, the lawsuit said he struggled to find work after his termination.

While the medical board reviewed the complaints and the courts considered the criminal charge lodged against Gokal, the doctor “could not work because employers were reluctant to hire him given the publicity of the allegations made against him,” the lawsuit said. ” . . . Dr. Gokal went through a tortured six-month criminal investigation during which time his reputation was tarnished, his confidence was shattered, and he and his family were subjected to emotional distress.”



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