On Monday, a Harris County judge dismissed the theft charge against a doctor accused of stealing nine doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which he said would otherwise go to waste.
District Court Judge Franklin Baynun criticized Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg for trying to prosecute Dr. Hassan Gokal and said the one-time charge of theft by a government official had no probable cause.
“In the number of words that are usually taken to describe an allegation of theft, the state is trying for the first time to criminalize the documented use of vaccine doses during a public health emergency,” Bynum wrote. in his order, adding the affidavit is “dotted with negligence and error.”
Ogg spokesman Dane Schiller said prosecutors would still continue the case.
“Judge Byne’s gratuitous observations call into question his fairness and impartiality; we expect to present all the evidence on the issue to a grand jury, “Schiller said.
Gokal, who worked for Harris County Public Health, observed the vaccine distribution site on December 29, when an open vial of Moderna doses was left at the end of the day, around 6:30 p.m. As the doses expired within six hours, Gokal, through his lawyer, said he had offered the vaccine to health workers and police on the spot, but they refused or had already been inoculated.
Gokal said he called a head of the health department who did not know about the patients available. He then uses contacts in his mobile phone and administers about nine doses outside the place of acceptable recipients: elderly residents or those with certain medical conditions. Unable to find another recipient, Gokal said he gave the last dose to his chronically ill wife after 11 p.m.
Gokal said he entered all recipients in the state database the next day as required. He was fired on Jan. 8 when Harris County public health leaders found he had violated the policy by taking doses from the vaccination site.
In a news release last week, Og accused Gokal of stealing doses to give to family and friends. Gokal’s lawyer, Paul Doyle, claims that the health department fired the doctor to divert attention from improperly managed distribution of vaccines.
The government has an interest in ensuring that doctors follow vaccine distribution procedures, said Valerie Gutman Koch of the University of Chicago’s MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. However, these rules must be clear and transparent.
“It’s very difficult not to feel sympathy for the doctor and all the different steps he takes to ensure that the vaccine falls into as many hands as possible,” Koch said.
The health department has not yet responded to a request for a chronicle of its vaccine distribution protocols. A spokeswoman did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the closure of the case.
Doyle said Gokal was preparing to sue Harris County for wrongful termination.
“The Harris County Public Health apologies and the Harris County Attorney’s Office to Dr. Gokal and his family will not be enough,” Doyle said. “The agency ignored the name of this good civil servant and took his job for no reason.”
Gokal, an emergency physician, began work in Harris County last April.