Nurses Responding to Global Pandemics

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nurse with surgical mask

For the past several years, experts have been warning about the rising threat of an international health emergency that could sicken millions of people. As the largest sector of healthcare workers in every country, nurses play a pivotal role in preparation for a 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 central to public health and safety. They are the key to preventing and containing widespread illnesses through coordinated global networking and proper identification 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 degrees (MSNs), 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.

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 than in 1918. However, certain 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 (such as Ebola) increases as humans continue to encroach on wildlife habitats.

Climate change

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

Social media

Falsehoods and misinformation spread via social media are 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. Because pandemic outbreaks are unpredictable, global health agencies have to develop plans that will provide appropriate and timely responses, the WHO said – and nurses must be among those involved in the planning.

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 re-emerging 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.

Indeed, nurses who are seeking a modern approach to stopping a pandemic can look to the past.

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.

At 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.”

At the same time, the disease marked new beginnings for the nursing profession. Carole Kenner, DNP, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that new nursing specialties emerged to help individualize patient needs.

“The flu also increased the visibility of what nurses could do under these kinds of circumstances,” Kenner said in “5 questions: How the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic changed the nursing profession.” “It brought to the international forefront the realization that nurses were the frontline medical professionals. There were more of them than physicians. The status of nursing was raised, and … their role in health, in community and public health, was also more visible.”

Nursing Leaders in a Pandemic

Because the world is more complicated than it was more than 100 years ago, nurse leaders must develop plans that can slow or prevent the progress of widespread illnesses. Part of developing an effective strategy involves nurses putting the skills that helped them earn their MSN degree to practical use.

Through Duquesne University’s online MSN program, nurses learn ways to encourage and improve population health and 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

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

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