Boosting Vaccine Confidence With the Arts

The rapid development of safe and effective vaccines against the novel coronavirus is a remarkable feat of scientific achievement. And it’s our best shot for getting through a global pandemic. But having the vaccine is not enough if not everyone is confident enough to take it.

As of September 2021, roughly 180 million Americans are fully vaccinated, a number representing about 64% of the population over 12 eligible for the vaccine. Despite the rapid spread of the more contagious Delta variant, vaccine uptake has slowed, and certain communities have been more hesitant to get the shot: Black and Hispanic people are less likely than their White counterparts, and Republicans are less likely than Democrats, to have received the vaccine.

Scientific research has repeatedly shown that the vaccine is safe and effective, but different and more persuasive ways of communication are needed to reach these communities to build confidence and trust in the vaccine.

The arts, it turns out, are a powerful tool to promote vaccine confidence.

“The arts are compelling,” said Jill Sonke, the director of the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida. “They attract our attention, they attract our interest. They engage people, they bring people together, so the arts are a mechanism in which many people like to engage.”

Because there is a lot of distrust in the government and health systems, “we need opportunities for people to engage in dialogue and in consideration about vaccination with trusted others who are prepared to have those discussions,” Sonke said.

From this need, the Vaccine Confidence Arts Response Repository was born.

Launched as a partnership between the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine, the Repository showcases examples of successful partnerships between artists and public health professionals and helps forge future collaborations.

“Artists and culture bearers are influencers in communities,” Sonke said.  “They’re trusted messengers.  They’re people who live in their communities and are thinking about issues and how to solve problems [and] have always worked to make life better through better health and equity. At a moment like this, public health needs all the partnership it can get.”

Partnerships between arts and public health are not new and have been found to be effective in the past. The Hulu teen drama, “East Los High,” was an edutainment program, aimed at young Latino Americans, that embedded educational messages promoting sexual and reproductive health within its narratives. One award-winning 2016 publication found that “East Los High” promoted a positive cognitive, emotional and social impact on sexual and reproductive health communication and education: its viewers not only learned new information and visited health resources but also engaged in more interpersonal conversations about sexual health.

“Effective partnerships are those in which the public health professionals and the artists or culture bearers are recognized as equal partners,” with clearly articulated values, equitable compensation and knowledge sharing,” said Sonke.

The Vaccine Confidence Arts Response Repository and a recent webinar spotlighted several example partnerships that came together during the pandemic.

The CDC, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia, partnered with local arts organizations Dashboard and Living Walls to create public art in the form of projections and banner installations around the city, with artists designing the art and the CDC providing the public health content.  In California, the San Francisco Creative Corps brought together performing and visual artists to paint over 100 murals and spread health messages; the state government has now budgeted $60 million for a 3-year pilot California Creative Corps program whose goal is to use the arts to raise public awareness of not only health, but conservation, civic engagement, and social justice.

The CDC Foundation has also launched a new funding opportunity to provide $2.1 million for arts organizations to use arts of any medium to bolster vaccine confidence.

The new Repository has been met with a lot of enthusiasm so far.

“We’ve heard from a couple of state health departments that have passed the guides down to their local health departments,” Sonke said. “And we’re just hearing really great feedback.  I think in this moment, there’s a lot of understanding in communities of the value of engaging the arts, but there hasn’t been this kind of guidance from an agency like the CDC to really encourage it.”

In other countries, artists and culturemakers are often part of the public health conversation from the start, something that the United States could learn from, both during and following this current public health crisis, Sonke said.

“This moment isn’t done, COVID is not over,” Sonke said.  “I hope that in this current pandemic, and in whatever future health emergencies or challenges that we’re facing, that from day one of the national and local responses, artists and culture bearers are at the table with the people who are developing strategies for addressing those challenges.”

Visit or contribute to the Vaccine Confidence Arts Response Repository here:

Lead Image: Wendy Fukushima / Amplifier

Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.

COVID-19 Health Public Health Visual Arts Wellbeing