By Brendan McDermid

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Staff at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in New York City were seen disposing of their gowns and caps and other protective wear in a sidewalk trash can on Thursday after wheeling bodies out of the hospital and loading them into a refrigerated truck.

Hospital workers typically wear protective gear while caring for patients suffering from COVID-19, the sometimes deadly respiratory disease caused by the highly infectious new virus. Reuters was unable to confirm whether the bodies were those of coronavirus victims.

The hospital is in Brooklyn. The outbreak has killed nearly 1,400 New York City residents.

Hospital administrators could not be reached for comment after multiple emails and calls to the public affairs office and main phone line. Operator Beatrice Pereira said, “They said there’s no one available right now, that everyone here is busy saving lives.”

A Reuters photographer saw four workers in protective gowns, caps, face masks and goggles rolling hospital beds out of the building carrying deceased patients covered with white sheets.

After placing the bodies inside a refrigerated truck, they removed their gowns and other protective gear and put them into a nearby outdoor trash can then wheeled the beds back inside.

If the staff had been handling a coronavirus victim, they should have disposed of their protective equipment in specific bins for hazardous waste, Jack Caravanos, a professor at the New York University School of Global Public Health, said in a phone interview.

“It’s a very serious breach of infectious protocols. This stuff is supposed to be treated as infectious material and disposed of in infectious waste containers,” Caravanos said.

According to World Health Organization guidance for treating coronavirus patients, personal protective equipment should be “discarded in an appropriate waste container after use.”

A homeless person had been going through the trash can an hour earlier, the Reuters photographer said. Reuters could not determine what was in the trash can at the time.

A spokesman for New York City’s health department said he was not able to comment on what Reuters saw, but said each hospital should have procedures in place for the use and disposal of protective gear. The New York State Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

Faced with a dire shortage of protective gear, federal and local health officials are advising healthcare workers to reuse and clean disposable masks and gloves when possible, rather than throwing them away after each patient.

(Reporting by Brendan McDermid; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Ross Colvin, Howard Goller and Daniel Wallis)