Nurses Responding to Global Pandemics

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nurse with surgical mask

As the worldwide response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues, nurses are working to assist the sick, quell community fears and address concerns. Nurses, the largest sector of healthcare workers in every country, play a pivotal role in preparation for a possible pandemic.

The nurses’ role in a pandemic begins even before a disease has an opportunity to cause widespread devastation, the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Nurses Association (ANA) and other healthcare organizations said.

In a 2018 policy brief, the ANA said nurse leaders are the key to preventing and containing widespread illnesses. They have the skills and education to develop coordinated global networking and properly identifying of infectious diseases.

As frontline responders, nurse leaders are the first to recognize symptomatic patients and harmonize response efforts, the ANA said.

“The American Academy of Nursing asserts that nurses are prepared for the leadership roles in policy decisions of health systems and government agencies and can prepare for, identify, respond to and direct recovery efforts from global pandemics that require an informed, internationally coordinated response,” the ANA said in “Expanding nursing’s role in responding to global pandemics.”

In preparation for advanced roles, registered nurses (RNs) who earn a master’s in nursing degree (MSN), including through online master’s in nursing programs, can be prepared for the worst. In an MSN career, RNs have an opportunity to provide expert help and guidance through devastating illnesses, including COVID-19.

Nursing in a Pandemic

In 1918, nurses played a pivotal role in the Spanish flu pandemic that killed about 675,000 Americans and up to 50 million people worldwide. Today, advances in science, technology and healthcare have made the world much safer. However, the following modern developments have also put the world at risk of another pandemic:

Global transportation

The ability to traverse the globe in about two days increases the risk of quickly bringing a deadly virus from a remote part of the world to populated cities.


The clustering of large populations in metropolitan areas helps viruses spread quickly.

Human encroachment

The occurrence of zoonotic diseases (like Ebola) increases as humans continue to encroach on wildlife habitats.

Climate change

Changing climates across the globe are expanding the reach of vectors, like mosquitos, into new regions.

Social media

Falsehoods and misinformation spread via social media is expanding the anti-vaccination movement, which puts the youngest and most vulnerable at risk.

In its 2019 annual report, the WHO said the world is not adequately prepared for a global health crisis. Since pandemic outbreaks are unpredictable, global health agencies have to develop plans that will provide appropriate and timely responses, the WHO said. Among those who must be involved in planning are nurses, the organization said.

Indeed, nurses around the world are filling roles to assist in the coronavirus response.  In the United Kingdom, the government is considering recalling recently retired nurses and other providers. Closer to home, the Association of Camp Nursing posted official guidelines for spring break camps, including having camp managers and nurses monitor children and staff for illnesses.

At the same time, the Washington State Nurses Association is calling for local and state officials to better protect staff nurses who are working directly with sick patients.

“Registered nurses and other providers are on the frontline of our health care system and will be the first responders as COVID-19 moves through our community. It is imperative that we make sure protocols, protections and rapid communication with caregivers who are exposed are in place,” the association said in a written statement.

The ANA, in its 2018 policy brief, said the best response to the growing threat is to develop a coordinated response network that reviews emerging and reemerging infections. The answer should be “based on a grounds-up approach incorporating frontline individuals and communities likely to be the first to recognize symptomatic individuals as first responders.”

“The best response to a potential global pandemic is prevention. Early recognition of novel infections will be enhanced by the development of linkages between community and clinic nurses and the initial point of contact with the infected individual,” the ANA said.

History of the Nurses’ Role in a Pandemic

In the one year that the Spanish flu ravaged the globe, nurses worked tirelessly to care for sick and dying patients, at the same time exposing themselves and their families to the virus.

In the height of the disease outbreak, nurses worked in hospitals and private homes to treat patients. Since there was no cure for the illness, nurses provided necessary care to keep patients comfortable.

“Most people received care at home since hospitals teemed with the ill. In cities, where immigrant ghettos were considered ‘hives of illness,’ nurses visited patients in their cramped tenement flats. In rural areas, they called on patients in remote farmhouses, log cabins and shacks,” Lisa Yarkony, Ph.D. and managing editor of the National Association for Home Care’s magazine Caring, wrote in, “Flu, 1918 And Now: The Importance of Good Nursing.”

Nursing Leaders in a Pandemic

Since the world is more complicated than it was more than 100 years ago, nurse leaders must continue to develop plans that can slow or prevent the progress of any widespread illnesses. Part of developing an effective strategy is using skills learned to earn an MSN degree. RNs who earn an MSN degree learn ways to encourage and improve population health.

Through Duquesne University’s Online MSN Program, RNs prepare to take leadership roles that improve critical responses to healthcare emergencies.

About Duquesne University’s Online Master’s in Nursing

Duquesne University’s online MSN and Post-Master’s Certificate degree programs provide one-on-one faculty support to encourage success at every level. The programs allow nurses to continue their careers and personal lives while earning an advanced education.

Graduates are eligible to sit for certification boards based on study specialization, including the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCP) and American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) Family Nurse Practitioner certification examinations. For more information, contact Duquesne University today.




Expanding nursing’s role in responding to global pandemics 5/14/2018: American Nurses Association

Coronavirus plans will pull nurses out of retirement if situation worsens: Nursing Times

As spring break nears, camp nurses issue coronavirus guidelines for vacation camps: USA Today

5 questions: How the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic changed the nursing profession: The Philadelphia Inquirer

Latest on COVID-19 in WA: Washington State Nurses Association

Flu, 1918 And Now: The Importance of Good Nursing: Caring

A pandemic killing tens of millions of people is a real possibility — and we are not prepared for it: Vox

A World At Risk: WHO