The Crucial Role of Nurses in Public Health Emergencies

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated February 2, 2023
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Nurses have always been invaluable during public health crises, but as epidemics, pandemics, and climates disasters increase, so does the need for public health nursing professionals.
Nurses and doctor working together on a patient lying downCredit: Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Nurses play a crucial role in public health. They perform life-saving tasks during public health crises and emergencies. Whether they’re vaccinating or treating patients during an epidemic or helping those who have experienced a natural disaster, nurses are often the first medical personnel patients encounter when brought to the emergency room or urgent care clinic.

Public health, emergency, and other nurses are trained in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. They have strong connections to their community and emergency response skills.

The need for nurses continues to rise with the increases in public health crises– including coronavirus variants, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and influenza – and natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires.

Learning From History

Nurses have continuously fought on the front lines of global health outbreaks. In 1918, a deadly strain of influenza spread rapidly around the world, killing an estimated 50 million globally. Unlike other flu viruses, it struck young adults at higher rates than the rest of the population.

American nurses visited patients in their homes, risking their health and lives to treat up to 40 people per day, while student nurses cared for the sick in hospitals. Some nurses contracted influenza while providing care and succumbed to the illness.

The World Health Organization characterizes a pandemic as a disease with exponential growth that causes more cases each day and affects many countries or populations.

Pandemics and epidemics, like the 1918 flu, and more recently COVID-19, cause so many cases so quickly, they share many characteristics such as:

The past century has seen the development of flu vaccines and medications, along with global influenza monitoring, which helped mitigate subsequent flu pandemics in 1957, 1968, and 2009. Research into vaccines for SARS and MERS helps guide the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The COVID-19 pandemic acutely highlighted the need for more trained nurses. Nurses care for patients and educate the public about slowing the spread of disease. They also lead efforts to make hospitals safer for all healthcare personnel through measures such as assembling masks and face shields.

Skills Nurses Bring to the Table

In addition to combating disease and responding to natural disasters, nurses educate, prevent, and mitigate other public health issues, including obesity, tobacco and substance abuse, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and the effects of unsafe drinking water.

Registered nurses (RNs) assess symptoms, take medical histories, administer medications and vaccines, and assist with tests and procedures. Nurse practitioners (NPs) use their leadership, research, and policy analysis skills to provide crisis management and disaster response.

NPs can also practice independently depending on their state of residence. Both RNs and NPs can offer education in infectious disease prevention, emergency preparedness, weight loss, and treatment for addictions.

Nurses in hospitals, community and public health clinics, schools, and organizations like the Red Cross perform many important duties during emergencies and public health crises, including activating operations plans, overseeing personal protective equipment use, staffing shelters, organizing blood drives, and assisting older people. Many community clinics may employ a surveillance nurse to monitor outbreaks through contact tracing.

Nurses also help mitigate health and healthcare disparities in disaster and emergency preparedness and response. They can assist underserved communities with disaster preparedness kits and procedures and advocate for equal access to tests, treatments, vaccines, and other life-saving resources.

Nursing Shortages

A recent Health Affairs workforce analysis noted a 100,000+ decrease in RNs during 2021, illustrating the extent of the nationwide nursing shortage. In addition to impacting patient care, nursing shortages make public health emergencies like epidemics and pandemics more likely and more serious.

Even without the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding just one patient to a nurse’s workload causes a 7% increase in patient mortality, according to a 2014 Lancet article. Back in 2007, the World Health Organization also warned that under-resourced healthcare systems are one of the factors of accelerated global disease transmission.

Short-staffed medical facilities lack a sufficient number of nurses to educate patients about infectious disease prevention, administer vaccines and medications, and engage in community outreach and advocacy. This can result in more infected patients, who in turn transmit illnesses to others. In addition, people are more likely to listen to nurses about issues like vaccination than physicians or government officials, reports a 2022 Frontier’s article.

Nursing Careers for Public Health Emergencies

Many nursing careers participate in preventing and ending public health emergencies. The following types of nurses are a few examples of those who help to prevent and stop public health emergencies:

Registered Nurseidentification

RNs in physicians’ offices educate patients about vaccines and other preventive measures against infectious diseases, offering telehealth services to prevent transmission. In hospitals, they conduct triage, implement infection control plans, and diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses.

Respiratory Nursecloud

These professionals specialize in treating patients with respiratory disease caused by RSV and other viruses, smoking, and natural disasters like wildfires. They are skilled in dispensing oxygen, managing ventilators, and administering medications.

Public Health Nurseglobe

Community-focused nurses have skills in case investigation, contact tracing, mass vaccination, and community education. They work in neighborhood clinics, in the community, and onsite with disaster and emergency response teams and organizations. In some cities and states, public health nurses also work as school nurses providing students with onsite care.

Informatics Nursetrending-up

Informatics nurses use data analysis and dissemination to focus on issues like assessing and monitoring populations at risk for public health problems, identifying problems and priorities, formulating policies, and evaluating care.

Pediatric Nursesparkles

Pediatric nurses care for children and advise their family members and caregivers on vaccines and health promotion. They also help connect families with resources like childcare when children need to stay home with an illness while parents go to work.

Geriatric Nurseuser-add

Geriatric nurses see patients in physicians’ offices, community clinics, home healthcare, and long-term care facilities. They are trained in health promotion and care for older people, including infectious disease prevention and treatment.

ER Nurseexclamation

ER nurses staff hospital emergency departments and can be the first point to contact for patients with life-threatening illnesses and injuries. They perform triage, monitor vital signs, stabilize patients, and administer first-aid, medications, and treatments.

Page Last Reviewed on January 29, 2023

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