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St. Luke’s bringing comfort to the COVID-quarantined homeless


When Eugene Kozma tested positive for the COVID-19 virus at the St. Luke’s Bethlehem ER in mid-April, he was told to self-quarantine at home since he wasn’t sick enough to be hospitalized. That news left the Bethlehem man concerned and a bit confused.

“I said, ‘I can’t quarantine, I live in a storage unit’,” recalls the 44-year-old man, whose home for the past year has been in a steel box in a public storage facility near Bethlehem. “I use public bathrooms and have to go out to get my meals.”

The often-fragile health of the vulnerable homeless population in the Lehigh Valley during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a special focus of St. Luke’s Community Health and Parish Nursing programs since the illness surged in the area in early March.

Working with the Allentown and Bethlehem health bureaus, Lehigh and Northampton County outreach workers, faith community and even a competitor health system, they have arranged with local hotels and motels to house homeless patients at a discounted rate while they quarantine to avoid spreading the deadly germs to their neighbors in the hidden camps and makeshift dwellings. Funds from the federal and area governments cover the cost of these temporary shelters, which are often much more comfortable than the beneficiaries have experienced in years.

Soon after Kozma learned the fever, cough and body aches he had been feeling were due to the virus and needed to isolate to keep from spreading it, Deborah Bartholomew, registered nurse, director of Parish Nursing, offered him a deal that he couldn’t refuse: a free-of-charge stay in the comfort of a hotel room while he quarantined.

“Our goal is to limit COVID from spreading within the homeless population, many of whom run a high risk for contracting illness,” said Bartholomew. “Eugene was our first patient to benefit from this critical public health strategy.”

For the next 10 days, he slept in a warm bed in a hotel and ate meals delivered by Meals on Wheels. The tradeoff for this comfort was his limited freedom to come and go as he pleased, socializing with friends and enjoying his daily routines, including work.

Parish registered nurses H. Jacqui Howells, and Allen Zelno visited Kozma to take his vital signs and monitor his illness symptoms. They called him on his cell phone to ask how he was holding up emotionally. Michelle Wagner, client advocate, kept in touch with him, too, inquiring about his body aches, fever and about his sleep habits. They all provided a critical social connection for Kozma, an outgoing man who said he sometimes felt “blue” during the isolation. “I think they helped me get better,” he said.

He had to take time off from his job at a warehouse outside of Allentown, where he has worked for 11 years and has many friends, and that had a downside. “I missed everybody and am used to doing my own thing.”

By day, Kozma’s fever decreased, and he regained his strength and stamina, and his outlook brightened. After 10 days, his temperature had returned to normal and he was able to end his quarantine. “I must have a strong immune system,” he said with a chuckle.

That’s when another stroke of good luck visited him. Pamela Lewis, manager of community partnerships with New Bethany Ministries called Kozma to say she’s looking for a permanent home for him, something he hasn’t had in years.

While he waits for this welcome habitat change, Kozma is staying in the Comfort Suites on Bethlehem’s South Side, enjoying his restored health and freedom, now able to step outside for a breath of fresh air, take a walk and prepare his meals using the microwave in his room.

He’s back at his job, where workers’ temperatures are taken as they enter the building to thwart the spread of the virus. Things are returning to normal, and for this Kozma credits the good-will efforts of St. Luke’s Parish Nursing and Community Health, as well as the kindness of many other former strangers whom he now knows by their first name.

“I found them all very helpful and compassionate,” he said. “This was a very positive experience for me.”