David Jefferson, MSW
Director of Training and Technical Assistance
Northwest ATTC

Over the past three years, in collaboration with the Northwest ATTC, I have led a large technical assistance project to support implementation of Motivational Interviewing (MI) for 200+ members of the behavioral health workforce employed at social service agencies in Whatcom County, Washington. During the course of this targeted technical assistance project, workforce members participated in basic and intermediate MI training workshops and received individualized, skills-focused coaching. In March 2020, when I became the Director of Training and Technical Assistance at the Northwest ATTC and we found ourselves in the midst of the pandemic, with providers being asked to quickly pivot to telehealth, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to build on their MI skills.

In mid-March, local programs discontinued face-to-face sessions and their workforce started providing all services virtually (i.e. phone, video-conferencing). Knowing we had a robust number of MI-trained workforce members, we thought this would be an opportune time to offer them individualized coaching in applying MI in their telehealth services. We speculated workforce members needed to increase their confidence in providing care, needed skills in this new medium, and could use guidance on how to be more effective with MI. We also knew many programs would be overwhelmed with administrative and programs complications related to Covid-19.

In response to this need, the Northwest ATTC developed a MI telehealth coaching protocol and by early April started delivering individualized coaching sessions to 41 workforce members. The coaching sessions were 30 minutes in length and delivered via Zoom. Prior to each coaching session, workforce members filled out a skill development form, which included identifying skills they were interested in developing, and writing out a case scenario. During the sessions, the coach role-played the client and the workforce member practiced his or her skills. The sessions ended with a debrief about what worked well, what were the challenges, and what skills to improve. Workforce members were offered up to four individual coaching sessions, and most completed at least three. In all, we completed 99 coaching sessions through the end of May.

The coaching revealed a depth of dedication and commitment by workforce members, who signed up to advance their skills during a time when their stress was peaking, workloads were more complicated and certainty in their day-to-day lives, hard to find. Workforce isolation prompted us to invite all participants to a one-hour Zoom session with the goal of sharing lessons learned and strengthening community. We asked the 25 attendees to answer three questions in small groups and report their top impressions. Here are the questions and responses.

What have you learned to improve your Telehealth services?
  • Workforce members benefit from setting up a workspace, being prepared to provide guidance and structure for the call and taking responsibility for setting the tone.
  • It is important to start calls by checking in about the basics. Asking the client initial questions like: “is this still a good time?”, “are you in an appropriate location?”, and “do you have privacy?” was critical, prior to exploring their comfort and skill level around using the phone and/or computer for services.
  • Acknowledge the common awkwardness, empathize with your shared dilemma of this new medium, and use humor to defuse the situation.
  • Adjust to shifting goals and respect the silence, not all clients like to talk on the phone.

What MI skills have been most useful?
  • The Four Processes of MI; Engagement, Focusing, Eliciting and Planning are helpful for structuring the call and guiding the conversation.
  • Slowing down helps clients make faster connections
  • Moving away from my “to-do list” and developing an agenda with the client.
  • Open-ended questions and reflection keep the conversation going but the reflections need to be deeper and lean toward what is possible, what is helpful, and what is hopeful.
  • Meaningful and well-crafted affirmations shine a light on clients’ skills and abilities especially during these times when they feel desperate and stagnant. Affirming that they have the resources to go forward helps them identify their self-efficacy.
  • Summaries help start and end the conversations and add structure. They create a story or narrative about the client’s life that is difficult to capture in these two-dimensional settings.
  • Explore the discord, as it helps increase engagement.

What are your pending challenges to strengthen services?
  • Building rapport and making genuine connections over the phone is the hardest part. Not all clients are comfortable with using phones for counseling sessions and do not see the value.
  • Maintaining connections via virtual sessions is hard and must be attended to each time.
  • Ambivalence is on the increase. Everything seems to be put on hold. Encouraging change talk is a bit harder as clients are hesitant to move on, due to fear, etc. (e.g., some have chronic diseases are afraid to go to healthcare providers).
  • They want Covid-19 information, which is limited, so it triggers the desire to fix clients and leaves workforce members feeling like they did not help.
  • Hard to move people to the eliciting phase. Need to make use of looking forward strategies to build hope and rekindle dreams.

Offering this cohort an opportunity to practice their MI skills with mock client role-plays, seemed well timed, and many expressed their appreciation and gratitude. The success of the project led the Northwest ATTC to offer the same opportunity starting in late May to the Idaho behavioral health workforce and we are exploring the possibility of expanding in other areas in region Ten.


Addressing the Syndemic of Addiction, COVID-19, and Structural Racism by Strengthening the Workforce



By Sara Becker 
New England ATTC

According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 105,000 Americans have died and at least 1.7 million Americans have been infected with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Social distancing measures put in place to contain the spread have decimated entire sectors of the United States economy, with the stock market dropping so precipitously that it erased three years of gains. Unemployment rates are also at historically high levels with the national rate rapidly approaching 15%. In a few short months, COVID-19 has upended our country and harmed millions of Americans.

Data on the toll of COVID-19 are troubling in aggregate, but even more concerning when we consider those Americans hit the hardest. Recent commentary by NIDA director Nora Volkow (2020) underscored how individuals who use opioids are at increased risk for the most adverse consequences of COVID-19 due to both direct (e.g., slowed breathing due to opioid use) and indirect (e.g., housing instability, incarceration) pathways. In addition, Black Americans and Hispanics have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19: emerging regional data suggests that the COVID-19 death rate for Black and Hispanic Americans is about 2.5 times higher than for whites. The disproportionate toll of disease reflects the effects of structural racism, which manifests in increased risk of underlying health conditions (e.g., chronic respiratory disease); decreased access to testing and care; and decreased ability to socially isolate due to factors such as crowded living conditions and employment in sectors deemed essential. Taken together, these data indicate that the United States is in the midst of a syndemic - defined as the interaction of a set of linked health problems involving two or more conditions, interacting synergistically and contributing to excess burden of disease. Addressing the syndemic of addiction, COVID-19, and structural racism requires responses on multiple levels and across multiple fronts. One of those fronts is ensuring that the addiction treatment workforce is equipped with the tools needed to help patients facing these interacting epidemics.

The Addiction Technology Transfer Center (ATTC) Network has been working to meet this challenge by developing new products and resources focused on these intertwined public health issues. The National Coordinating Office hosted a Listening Session and a 5-part Strategic Discussion Series focused on emerging issues around COVID-19 and social determinants of health. The Listening Session solicited feedback on ways COVID-19 has highlighted racial and ethnic disparities, and each Strategic Discussion focused on concrete actions that could be taken to support specific communities of color.

Regional ATTCs have also risen to the challenge to create new tools for the addiction workforce during these unprecedented times. The New England ATTC has developed multiple products including a 2-part webinar series (in partnership with the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center) focused on the intersection of addiction, mental health, and COVID-19; a training focused on Trauma-Informed Approaches to Substance Use Assessment and Intervention (which includes new content on how to sensitively assess and address the trauma of racism and the traumas inflicted by COVID-19); and a workshop on Cultural Intelligence and Cultural Humility (which has been adapted to address the disparities and racism highlighted by COVID-19). The New England ATTC has also partnered with the South Africa HIV ATTC to develop a series of products focused on provider self-care in recognition of the toll that caretaking places on front-line health professionals. Finally, in October 2020 the New England ATTC will proudly host this year’s national Addiction Health Services Research Conference (delivered fully virtually)! One of the plenary talks by Dr. Ayana Jordan will specifically address the intersection of structural racism and addiction, and spotlight awards will be given to addiction researchers from underrepresented minority groups.

The New England ATTC is proud to join other Regional ATTCs in not only building the skills of the SUD workforce but also providing supportive strategies for sustaining hope and encouraging self-compassion during this trying times. Please visit the New England ATTC’s COVID-19 resource page to see the latest products and training events devoted to addressing this syndemic.