National Nurses Day was Wednesday, and it marked the beginning of National Nurses Week, which ends May 12. That's the birthday of Florence Nightingale.

The timing of this observance could not be more appropriate, as our nation – and indeed the world – has never owed a bigger debt to the women and men who are on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19.

The military analogy is not an overstatement. While the rest of us have largely hidden ourselves to avoid any risk of contact with the enemy, nurses have put on their fabric-and-plastic armor each day and charged toward the danger.

The emotional toll on them has been enormous, something akin to what combat medics experience in war. The exhaustion is written on their faces as they leave work. Many are experiencing sleeplessness and depression.

And they've suffered casualties. Thousands have been infected with the virus. Dozens have died.

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Yet nurses keep showing up. They persevere, because nursing is more than a job, or even a profession. It truly is a calling.

And we're not talking about only the registered nurses and nurse practitioners who today have many of the responsibilities once held exclusively by physicians. Licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants are the unsung (and underpaid) heroes of the modern health care industry, with duties that are unpleasant, physically demanding and absolutely critical to a patient's physical and mental health.

Indeed, COVID-19 has brought new awareness of nursing's role in the emotional well-being of patients. With families excluded from ICU units, we've all heard grim stories of nurses who've comforted patients during their final moments, but what's gotten less publicity is the role of CNAs and other nurses at long-term care facilities where people have endured months of isolation.

In normal times, nurses in such facilities play a huge role in residents' physical health. Today, these caregivers also have become surrogate family members, a crucial connection to the outside world.

COVID-19 also has raised awareness of a major problem that won't go away when the pandemic is over; namely, the shortage of nurses. America has 3.8 million registered nurses, and one million of them are projected to retire in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, America's population is getting older and requires more medical care with each passing year.

While it's easy to say, “Then we need to train more nurses,” the reality is far more complex. In 2018, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reported that 75,000 qualified applicants to nursing schools had to be turned down due to lack of faculty, clinical sites and budget constraints.

That projects to a situation in which the demands on the existing pool of nurses will create unacceptable workloads and stress – which, of course, will hasten the premature departure of men and women from the profession.

Avoiding (or at least lessening) this crisis must become a national priority. Hospitals, universities, states and the federal government must team up and act now to ensure that in the future, no qualified candidate for a nursing program is turned away.

If we don't address this need immediately, the next pandemic might find us with an abundance of ventilators and personal protective equipment but not enough people who know how to use them – and the government can't simply go to 3M and Ford and tell them to start making nurses.