As disaster-trained emergency personnel, Robin Brennen was well aware of security procedures when he entered the apartment of a coronavirus patient on Manhattan's Upper West Side in late March. He put on plastic protective boots, a face mask and protective glasses for the eyes.
Then, with a gloved hand, he picked up the rest of the equipment: a two-and-a-half-pound bag of cat food and a litter box.
The devastating human losses the pandemic in New York City have been well documented, but it has also affected people's lives in ways that have drawn less attention, including what happens to the pets of those who are seriously ill.
Brennen, a veterinarian with the Animal Care Centers of New York City, is part of a team of specialists who help companion animals that are left alone.
Across the city, animal specialists, fully dressed in protective gear, enter houses to feed, free of charge, famished pets whose owners were hospitalized because of the virus, or to take pets belonging to patients who will not return home.
According to the New York City Animal Care Centers, pet owners who have died the virus have left dogs, guinea pigs, and cats, and at least one of them starved to death before anyone checked the owner's apartment.
For cats, which are susceptible to coronavirus infection, the city's standard procedure is basically to have them quarantined in their homes for at least fourteen days, with animal specialists monitoring them. (It is not yet known whether cats can transmit the disease to humans.)
That day in the Upper West Side, residents of the multi-family building had alerted Brennen's organization to a woman who lived there and was in intensive care fighting the virus. They said that she had left her two beloved cats in her apartment.
Brennen went and fed the cats twice a week. "I knew how much she loved and loved those cats," she said. "And I wanted them to be there when she returned home." In the end, the cat owner died; later, a neighbor adopted them.
"They are no longer with her, but they are with people willing to help her," said Brennen, vice president of animal health and welfare for the animal care organization. "And that's something."
Some patients infected with the virus, intubated and in intensive care, have been unable to notify someone that they have left their cat or dog, so the neighbors discover it when they hear the pet groans in the hallway.
In late April, the New York City Emergency Department and animal welfare offices launched a hotline for people who were having difficulty caring for their pets because of the virus.
Some of the questions received at those helplines, members of animal rescue groups and representatives of city agencies work, are quite basic. For example: Can my dog get the virus? (There have been a few documented cases of dogs catching the disease.)
The main goal of the hotline is to prevent sick or struggling New Yorkers delivering their pets, so they put them in touch with subsidized emergency veterinarians and the network of free food pantries for city pets.
However, sometimes delivering pets is the only option: As of June 17, approximately 145 pets had been delivered over the phone line. The animals have been cared for by Brennen's organization and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Manhattan.
Animals released because their owners contracted the virus must be quarantined for 14 days. After that, they can be adopted.
"It is very important to take care of this bond between humans and animals, especially at this time," said Christine Kim, senior community liaison for the city's animal welfare office. "Now is when people need it most."
When Howard Katz, 61, a limousine driver Massapequa, on Long Island, was hospitalized with the virus in April, his main concern was not his health, his sister Cynthia Hertz said. She was concerned about Lucy, her shiba inu, who was recovering surgery in which her eyes were removed due to illness.
Hertz commented that she and her boyfriend spent three days calling vets, dog pens and shelters to find someone to care for Lucy. No one wanted. "They were afraid," he said. "Lucy could be a carrier for COVID-19 and nobody could help."
A call to the pet helpline put her in touch with Jenny Coffey, director of community responsibility for the Animal Haven rescue group.
The group, which Coffey said has seen 215 cases so far, arranged for Lucy to stay on the premises of a Long Island boarding house for three weeks. The cost was paid by Red Rover, a group that provides financial support to help people who are going through a crisis with their pets.
"It was like a life preserver for my brother," Hertz said, adding that Katz was happy to meet with Lucy after spending three weeks in a hospital and rehabilitation center. "I didn't know if I would survive if something happened to Lucy."
Entering homes the virus is believed to have been present can be very stressful, said Feraz Mohammed, animal control officer for the Animal Care Centers in New York City.
One day recently, Mohammed drove an agency van covered in pictures of cats and dogs to an apartment building in the South Bronx. A resident believed to be infected with coronavirus had been hospitalized; her dog and cat had had no food or water for five days.
Mohammed donned a face mask, gloves, and a Tyvek suit, the openings around the wrists and ankles of which he carefully sealed with tape. Then he grabbed his dog catching tool and the cat carrier.
Upstairs, a dog that looked like a blonde mop came out of the apartment jumping with canine joy. Mohammed put a leash on the puppy and went inside. He trapped a tabby cat under the chair and gently petted the two pets as he carried them downstairs and locked them in cages inside the van.
"Once we feed them and give them water," he said, while stroking the puppy's head, "I feel better about all of this."