Bettina Lerman is slowly recovering and is now mostly breathing alone after spending five weeks on a ventilator at Maine Medical Center in Portland after contracting COVID-19.
“You feel better,” Lerman said Monday during a visit from her son. A video from a cell phone shows her lying in bed, but awake and alert, with tubes injecting oxygen into her nose to help her breathe.
She almost didn’t make it. Her son Andrew Lerman Jr. said the family was preparing a few weeks ago to allow doctors to remove their 69-year-old mother from a ventilator and select headstones for her burial.
“It was literally down to the wire,” says Lerman, who lives in Florida. He said that the day they made final plans to take her off the ventilator, she woke up from an artificial coma. “It was October 29. If she hadn’t woken up that day, she wouldn’t be here.”
Lerman was one of 296 patients hospitalized Monday in Maine for COVID-19, more than ever during the pandemic. Of the 296 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 87 were in intensive care and 36 were on a ventilator. Maine has recorded multiple hospitalizations in the past week, including Wednesday, Sunday and Monday.
Lerman has been working in Maine Med since Sept. 12, her son said. After waking from the coma, she was on a ventilator for a few weeks and can now breathe on her own, with some supportive oxygen, he said.
“Every day she’s getting better and better,” Lerman said. “She’s doing phenomenally.”
A Maine Medical Center spokeswoman said she could not confirm details about Bettina Lerman’s case, which is in line with the hospital’s practice when it does not have a patient’s explicit consent to speak to the media.
Family members have shared updates about Lerman in media interviews and online posts. The Press Herald interviewed Andrew Lerman Jr. on Monday, when he was in Portland to visit his mother.
Lerman said his mother lived in Tavares, Florida and was visiting her ex-husband, Andrew Sr., in South Portland when the entire family contracted COVID-19. No one who has contracted the virus has been vaccinated. He said his mother has underlying medical conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, that put her at greater risk for serious illness.
Lerman said his mother was not against vaccines, but she hadn’t gotten around to planning the injection yet. But now, after the near-death experience, they all plan to get vaccinated as soon as they are allowed to do so. He said they have to wait until 90 days after their last negative test to get the shots.
“We are going to get the vaccine. It helps, of course,” said Andrew Lerman Jr. “It was an eye-opening experience. It’s a terrible virus, and hopefully people can learn from it.”
He said that because they thought their mother was going to die, they signed her lease in Florida and donated most of her possessions. The family organizes online fundraisers to help cover the costs of her ordeal.
Monday’s record number of hospital admissions comes as the number of cases has also reached record levels, suggesting hospital admissions may continue to rise. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention will release updated case numbers on Tuesday.
Maine has the 12th highest rate of COVID-19 in the nation, with 50.2 cases per 100,000 population, on a seven-day daily average, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. The national average is 28 cases per day per 100,000 people.
The decline in cases and hospitalizations in Maine is primarily among unvaccinated people, who make up about two-thirds of all hospitalized patients. Pockets of the unvaccinated, especially in rural Maine where vaccine uptake lags, are primarily driving the decline in the decline, public health experts say.
“VAccinated adults have a nine times lower risk of hospitalization than unvaccinated adults,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, in a tweet on Sunday. “Does the vaccine eliminate the risk? No. But it significantly lowers it, and that’s what they were made for.”
Maine now administers about twice as many vaccines a day — about 11,000 to 12,000 a day — compared to the end of October. In November, federal regulators approved vaccines for ages 5 to 11, and last week expanded booster eligibility to anyone 18 and older.
Since vaccines were approved for elementary school children, 23 percent of children ages 5-11 have received their first dose, including 40 percent of that age group in Cumberland County. In contrast, less than 10 percent of children ages 5-11 have received their first dose in Washington, Franklin, Piscataquis, and Somerset counties. Those who have already received their first dose will have their second doses given in mid-December and those children will be fully vaccinated before the end of the year.
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