LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. demanded a correction from the New York Times Sunday after it reported nearly a dozen students at Liberty University in Lynchburg recently displayed symptoms of COVID-19 but only three were referred to local hospitals. Eight students were instructed to self-isolate, the article added.

In a tweet, Falwell called the news outlet “liars” and the university disputed the Times‘ reporting in a statement. (Read the full statement at the end of this story.)

“Prime example of why you never believe anything @nytimes says about @LibertyU,” Falwell tweeted. “Complete liars.”

A message on Liberty University’s website says students who return to campus after midnight tonight will be forced to self-isolate for 14 days.

“As of midnight March 29, 2020, any students who have not yet elected to check into campus residence halls for the first time since Spring Break, will be self-quarantined for two weeks at the annex in single rooms with meals and other essentials delivered,” the statement reads.

In an interview with the Times, Falwell reportedly said, “Liberty will be notifying the community as deemed appropriate and required by law.”

The Virginia Department of Health reported three coronavirus cases in Lynchburg as of Sunday morning, though it is unknown whether these cases are tied to Liberty.

The New York Times spoke with Kerry Gateley, the health director of the Central Virginia Health District, who told the paper of those in self-isolation at the university, “I can’t be sure what’s going on with individuals who are not being tested but who are advised to self-isolate. … I would assume that if clinicians were concerned enough about the possibility of Covid-19 disease to urge self-isolation that appropriate screening and testing would be arranged.”

Falwell faced backlash recently after allowing some students to return to campus after Spring Break despite classes moving online. Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy was among those to criticize the move. So was Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who ordered public schools closed for the rest of the academic year and a shutdown of non-essential businesses in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has infected nearly 900 Virginians and left 22 dead statewide.

Liberty University responded to the New York Times‘ reporting on Sunday evening:

“Your published story is false and according to Dr. Thomas Eppes misrepresents what he told you. The facts are that there have been no cases of any on-campus student testing positive for corona virus, four were told to self isolate even thought they had no symptoms solely because they had returned from New York, and one on-campus student who never left Lynchburg has tested positive from local contacts in the community.”

Liberty University statement

The university’s legal counsel issued the following statement:

The New York Times ambushed Liberty University to publish a false and misleading story claiming that, “students started getting sick” after the University received students back after spring break.  The Times attributed the reporter’s conclusion about the scope of the COVID-19 symptoms being about a dozen students to a local doctor who has consulted with LU.  The truth is a far different story.  Both the numbers and the sequencing are wrong.

At about 12:30 pm on Sunday afternoon, a New York Times reporter emailed university spokesperson with a list of 12 questions to be answered for a story that was going to run in the paper Monday.  About 20 minutes later, she wrote to say that the story would go online in a few hours.  Unable to gather specific answers to all the questions, President Falwell called the reporter and gave her an interview.  The story was posted at 3:00 pm and contained several errors.

The University promptly provided the reporter detailed numbers on the student cases and requested corrections.  No correction has been forthcoming so this statement is being issued.

Liberty disputes the number of students with symptoms that the Times reported.  Liberty is not aware of any students in its residence halls testing positive for COVID-19 or, in fact, being tested at all, much less any residence hall students having sufficient symptoms of COVID-19 to get tested.

Liberty can confirm that, following the US Surgeon General’s recommendations concerning persons who had been in the New York City metropolitan area, Liberty University asked four students who had recently been in that area and who were living in campus residence hall rooms to self-quarantine for the recommended period in single rooms at Liberty’s otherwise unoccupied housing annex (a former hotel a few miles from campus).  Two did and two opted to return to their permanent residence, instead.  There were three students in close contact with these individuals and they were also asked to self-quarantine in separate rooms in the annex.  They did.

Liberty is providing meals and attending to their needs there.  This was precautionary and not based on any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 among the eight.  The health professionals did not recommend these asymptomatic students be tested and they were not.

Liberty is also aware of one off-campus student who returned from an out-of-state county with a high number of cases who was running a fever and had a cough.  He was tested and advised to self-isolate pending the results.  He elected to return to his permanent residence instead.

Another off-campus student came in for COVID-19 testing during spring break and her results came back negative.Liberty is also aware of a recently graduated student who is taking online classes and who lives off campus with his family.  He remained in Lynchburg during spring break who was advised to self-isolate based on his reported symptoms while his test results were being processed.  Despite his status as a graduate, he came through the campus clinic to see the doctors he had been seeing while a student.

Liberty University has a protocol in place for informing members of the University community as necessary in the event we confirm a student or employee on our campus tests positive for COVID-19.  No such notification stands in place as of yet.

So despite the Times’ sensational headline and story lead, Liberty is only aware of three off campus student who were sufficiently symptomatic to qualify for COVID-19 testing, two of which did not leave Lynchburg for Spring Break and one of which tested negative during Spring Break.

The story also forwards a misleading narrative about how government officials were informed of Liberty University’s decision.  The following statement was shared publicly on March 16 with advance copies to both the City of Lynchburg and the Governor’s office following Liberty’s decision to move most all classes to online delivery, thus allowing fewer students to need to return to Lynchburg from Spring Break to take classes, as had been the prior plan. (https://www.liberty.edu/news/index.cfm?PID=18495&MID=379063)  Both the City and the Governor’s office thanked Liberty for this announcement but later each reversed course and sought to criticize it after reading media articles and letters to the editor.

Except for deciding to convert in-person classes to online, President Falwell’s position on welcoming students who opted to return didn’t change.  The statement clearly shows it intended to leave the residence halls open and dining services open, giving the students the option to choose.

President Falwell never promised how many students would return.  He had no idea, frankly. The University planned for as many as 5,000.  It had approximately 1,900 in the residence halls and are now down to about 1045 with additional checkouts this week.
Sunday March 29 is the last day to be eligible for a $1,000 credit if students choose not to live in their residence hall rooms.  Students who choose to return starting tomorrow will be self-quarantined at the annex for two weeks.

The University will remain in compliance with all applicable governmental directives and guidance concerning COVID-19.Liberty University is very disappointed about the way the New York Times choose to handle its reporting about this story.  Such media conduct contributes to the public’s suspicion of media and earns the label “fake news.”

General Counsel David M. Corry, Liberty University

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