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Featured In The Miami Herald | ‘Queen of vaccines.’ Woman and a team of volunteers make over 5,000 appointments

Lori Tabachnikoff said that getting her 74-year-old mother-in-law a COVID-19 vaccine appointment in January was a “disaster.”

“It was the whole process,” she said. “Making the appointment, getting the shot, everything.”

Her frustration led to a simple Facebook post: “If you or a loved one is 75 and over and you need help making an appointment for the Covid-19 vaccine, please reach out to me.”

And people definitely reached out.

Tabachnikoff, 40, who is the director of the Jewish Volunteer Center at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, mobilized a team to get up early, stay up late and “hunt down” appointments. Over the span of several months, Tabachnikoff and her team made more than 5,000 vaccine appointments at hospitals, pharmacies, groceries stores and medical centers.

“What she started on her own, picked up momentum and energy,” said Jacob Solomon, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Solomon dubbed Tabachnikoff the “queen of vaccines.”

“We say how one person can make a difference and she is living proof of that axiom,” he said.

Community Comes Together

When vaccines first became available in December, getting an appointment was not easy. There was a limited supply and very strict guidelines for who was eligible.

Community organizations, religious institutions and individuals around South Florida began outreach to get people vaccinated.

Tabachnikoff, who is also the wife of Congregation Dor Chadash Rabbi Jonathan Tabachnikoff, said she first began helping family, friends and members of the South Miami-Dade synagogue. The mother, who lives in South Miami-Dade, set up shop in the playroom of her house.

Then people began reaching out to her to help. Eventually, there were 35 volunteers.

Yoly Perez had started helping people get appointments in January after realizing that those who needed the vaccine the most were having the hardest time making appointment.

“I had time on my hands,” said Perez, who had just lost her job. “I figured, the quicker we got this done, the better it would be for everyone.” Through word of mouth, she linked up with Tabachnikoff.

Another volunteer, Vanessa Jacobson said she first discovered the need to help seniors with appointment when she called more than 800 times to get her father an appointment. She said that working with the federation’s group “has been time-consuming, but amazing.”

For Joan Cohen, 77, getting help from Jacobson was invaluable.

Cohen, who lives in Boynton Beach during the season, said she had tried to make her own appointment but failed.

“I was really concerned about getting the shot, and [Jacobson] held my hand through it,” she said.

Judy Weinberg agreed. Not only was she able to get her own appointment through the federation’s effort, she said, but it has been a “domino effect.”

“When someone helps you, you have to pass it on,” she said.

How It Worked

Tabachnikoff kept a list of everyone who had approached her about needing an appointment.

Some volunteers would get up at 6:45 a.m., just before Publix opened appointments. Others stayed up until midnight, when Walmart and CVS released their appointments.

Tabachnikoff worked with Mount Sinai, Jackson Health, ChenMed to have standing appointments.

She said that the biggest challenge until recently was the struggle to keep up with demand. Now, she says, the challenge is “encouraging others to get the vaccine.”

Dr. Ernesto Manzano-Maciera, market chief medical officer for Chen Senior Medical Centers in Miami, said that having community groups, including the Federation, help bring people to the centers “was crucial.”

Elizabeth Vilches Olivera, M.D.,
Elizabeth Vilches Olivera, M.D., at a ChenMed Senior Medical Center in Miami.

“It’s not only to reach more people, it’s to reach the right people,” Manzano-Maciera said. “We want to reach those who have difficulty doing it themselves.”

And while the requests for appointments are lessening somewhat, Tabachnikoff said she still says she will find anyone who wants one an appointment.

She also continues to get the word out about vaccines. And she will help get children vaccines, when the approval from the Food and Drug Administration comes for 12- to 15-year-olds.

“As long as there is a need, we will continue to help,” Tabachnikoff said.