New America Weekly

A WWII-Era Solution to the Pandemic

Weekly Article
tetiana.photographer /
May 27, 2020

This piece has been updated since it originally appeared in The Hill.

Nearly 80 years ago, the United States faced an enormous health crisis. World War II was devastating the globe, creating a dire need for nurses. In response, we created a program called the Nurse Corps. From 1943 to 1948, 124,000 nurses received expedited training to provide life-saving care to soldiers, sailors, and civilians worldwide.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has created another nightmarish shortage of front-line health care workers. It’s time to revive the Nurse Corps for the modern age—and here’s how that could work.

First, Nurse Corps members would train to become medical assistants, patient care technicians, or certified nursing assistants. These programs usually last several weeks to a few months, and the Corps would cover tuition, fees, supplies, and a monthly stipend.

Next, Corps members would go to work supporting doctors and nurses fighting the spread of COVID-19. They would serve as health care support workers—carrying out basic patient care tasks, testing, and patient intake—and receive a stipend until the pandemic subsides. Critically, Corps members would work in these support roles until demand subsides; we don’t know how long this explosion in demand for health care will last, so flexibility is critical.

Finally, as the pandemic slows and the strain on the health care system eases, care facilities would release Corps members from their duties. Corps members would then transition into further education, whether toward a career as a Registered Nurse or a certificate program to become a Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse. Colleges admitting Corps members for this phase would be required to count their work during the pandemic toward credits needed for their new program. As during their initial assistant training, Corps members’ tuition, fees, supplies, and books would be covered, and they would continue to earn a stipend for living expenses.

The Department of Health and Human Services currently administers a small version of the original Nurse Corps program with approximately 2,000 active members. That’s not nearly enough to meet the demands of this moment. Congress should appropriate enough money to expand the Corps by a hundred-fold, and triple the current monthly stipend of $1,419. Furthermore, at present, Nurse Corps members can only complete their post-licensure service requirements in facilities designated as having a critical shortage of nurses. Since the entire country is in crisis, Congress should ensure that Corps members can serve at any health care facility in need of their services, and provide additional financial incentives to place Corps members in facilities with especially dire needs.

Many states and regions faced acute nursing shortages well before the pandemic. A radical expansion of the Nurse Corps will help mitigate that need after COVID-19 subsides. Moreover, as the population ages, more nurses will be needed for both acute and long-term care. However, many nursing and medical assistants currently find it difficult to upgrade their skills due to time and cost constraints. The new Nurse Corps would provide members with the financial resources and time they need to advance their careers as practical or registered nurses, thereby expanding and strengthening the profession.

COVID-19 is straining the capacity of our health care system to its limits—and beyond. Let’s aid our current nurses and doctors with a wave of new support, and ensure that our nursing workforce stays strong and resilient for years to come.