Austin, Texas – The University of Texas at Austin’s Health Behavior Research and Training Institute (HBRT) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Foundation have been awarded a $3.3 million grant by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to engage the nation’s 700,000+ social workers in boosting COVID-19 vaccine confidence, uptake and access, particularly among populations with low vaccination rates and higher vulnerability to severe forms of infection.

“Social workers are essential to the vaccination effort,” said Mary M. Velasquez, Ph.D., the grant’s principal investigator and professor and director of HBRT. “They’re one of the largest groups of behavioral health providers, and they work in a broad range of settings, from hospitals and mental health centers, to schools and correctional facilities.”

The project will include a comprehensive education campaign for social workers on COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness, barriers to vaccination, and the role of social workers in promoting vaccination. The initiative will also include trainings for social workers on facts and myths about the vaccines as well as training in Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT); Motivational Interviewing (MI); and other evidence-based, culturally competent, public health- and social work-informed methods for helping clients to process health-related decisions and choices. Through reflective listening and other strategies, versus traditional advice-giving approaches, these methods support and honor the client’s capacity and right to make choices about their health, while centering science-based and accurate information.

HBRT will collaborate with Dr. Lloyd Berg at Dell Medical School on developing trainings for social workers, and with Michigan State University on a smartphone mobile application to supplement the trainings. The mobile app will support social workers by providing readily accessible vaccine information, MI strategies, screening questions and brief interventions, and effective vaccine messaging for real-time support.

HBRT will also partner with NORC at the University of Chicago to assist in developing messaging and in evaluation efforts. NASW’s 55 state and territorial chapters and specialty social work associations will be engaged in the initiative as well.

“Our goal is to help people find their own motivation to get vaccinated,” said Kirk von Sternberg, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, associate professor and associate director of HBRT.“ The trainings and the app will give social workers the tools to have informed and respectful conversations about the vaccine, and protect the health of the individuals and families they serve.”