The Crucial Role of Nurses in Public Health Emergencies

By Maura Deering



In This Article


The latest novel coronavirus statistics show hundreds of thousands of confirmed cases and tens of thousands of deaths worldwide, as of March 2020. These sobering numbers have led numerous countries, including the U.S., to implement measures such as social distancing and mandatory quarantine to flatten the curve of spiking COVID-19 cases before they overwhelm healthcare systems.

As hospitals worldwide buckle under the influx of cases, nurses work long and exhausting hours trying to save lives and prepare for an estimated eight-fold peak of cases. This crisis has shone even further light on the high demand for nurses in our country and the critical role they have within our healthcare system. This guide offers some historical context to pandemics and covers the valuable skills nurses provide, along with career path information for those interested in joining the nursing workforce.

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 the disease while providing care and succumbed to the illness.

Similarities between the 1918 flu and today's COVID-19 virus pandemics include the rapid spread and accelerated death toll; lack of tests and vaccines; reliance on isolation, hygiene, and disinfectants; and crushing overburden on healthcare systems.

The current coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for trained nurses even more acutely.

The past 100 years have 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 current coronavirus pandemic highlights the need for trained nurses even more acutely. Nurses care for patients and educate the public about slowing the spread of disease, along with leading efforts to make hospitals safer for all healthcare personnel, through such measures as assembling masks and face shields.

Skills Nurses Bring to the Table

Some nursing career options include registered nurses (RNs), public health nurses, informatics nurses, geriatric nurses, and emergency room (ER) nurses. RNs care for patients of all ages and health conditions. Their jobs consist of clinical skills, such as taking medical histories and vital signs and performing tests, along with educating patients on achieving and maintaining good health. Respiratory nurses, who serve a crucial role amid the coronavirus pandemic, intubate patients who need assistance with breathing. These professionals provide individuals with all ventilator-related care while monitoring vital signs, such as blood pressure and pulse.

Some nursing career options include registered nurses (RNs), public health nurses, informatics nurses, geriatric nurses, and emergency room (ER) nurses.

Public health nurses treat and advise patients of all ages, including high-risk populations, such as people with addiction issues. This specialty centers on community care, with nurses administering medications and educating people about nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Rather than working directly with patients, nurse informatics use the nursing, information, and computing sciences for managing and communicating data and knowledge. Geriatric nurses care for the elderly by providing advice, administering medication, and helping with daily living needs.

ER nurses work as part of multidisciplinary care teams to perform CPR and first aid, formulate plans of action in trauma situations, and ensure that patients become stabilized and comfortable.

Nursing Shortages

Even before the coronavirus arrived, experts projected a 200,000-person shortfall of U.S. nurses this year. Causes and contributing factors include low nursing school enrollment and a shortage of faculty, large numbers of retirements, an aging nationwide population, and high stress levels. The nursing shortage affects access to and quality of healthcare.

The COVID-19 outbreak and other health emergencies significantly heighten the effects of the shortage. Some startling statistics include a finding that, even without a pandemic, adding just one patient to a nurse's workload causes a 7% increase in patient mortality. Since the pandemic spread, 20% of healthcare workers in Lombardy, Italy, have contracted the virus.

In China, 3,387 medical professionals became infected by February 24. If these kinds of statistics replicate in the U.S., the coronavirus outbreak will become even more dangerous. Even among those not infected, the stress and trauma of working 12-hour days for weeks or months may compound the nursing shortage.

Nursing Careers for Public Health Emergencies

The following list of nurses constitute examples of the many healthcare professionals battling COVID-19. RNs advise, treat, and test patients, while public health nurses assist underserved and high-risk communities. ER nurses handle the most acute cases, and geriatric nurses help the most affected COVID-19 age group. Informatics nurses support the front lines with data and analysis of current and future challenges.

Registered Nurse

RNs work in clinics, doctor's offices, hospitals, residential facilities, ventilator units, and even patient's homes. They need at least a two-year nursing degree that focuses on clinical education, with many choosing to pursue bachelor's degrees.

Public Health Nurse

These specialists staff health departments, agencies, and mobile units. Each public health nurse must hold a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) and obtain an RN license. Many employers require additional training, which leads to certification.

Informatics Nurse

These professionals work in hospitals and healthcare facilities, along with consulting firms, corporations, and universities. An informatics nurse must earn a master's in nursing science or computer science.

Geriatric Nurse

Geriatric nurses assist the elderly in hospitals, care centers, physician's offices, and patient's homes, along with retirement communities and nursing homes. Geriatric nurses need at least an associate degree in nursing (ADN), fieldwork experience, and an RN license.

ER Nurse

In addition to hospital emergency rooms, ER nurses also assist in non-hospital emergency settings and critical access sites. An ER nurse must hold an ADN or BSN, along with an RN license and ER certification.