LYNCHBURG, Va. (CN) — A private Christian college in rural Virginia is disputing claims that it put students and faculty in danger by bringing them back to campus during the coronavirus pandemic, also denying that a student tested positive over the weekend.
Liberty University said on its website that a weekend New York Times article titled “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too” is both false and misleading.
Citing a local physician, the article says “nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19,” and one student has tested positive as of Sunday.
Liberty said, however, the “truth is a far different story.”
“Contrary to the Times’ reporting, Liberty is not aware of any students in its residence halls testing positive for Covid-19 or, in fact, being tested at all,” the school said on its website.
Liberty says the physician quoted in the article, Dr. Thomas Eppes, denies telling the Times that about a dozen students were sick with Covid-19 symptoms.
“He gave figures for testing and self-isolation that are consistent with Liberty’s numbers but the New York Times preferred to go forward with sensational click-bait that increases traffic,” Liberty said, adding it is “only aware of three off campus students who were sufficiently symptomatic to qualify for Covid-19 testing.”
The university said it requested corrections to the article. A representative for the Times did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.
The Lynchburg-based Christian college — whose president is evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell Jr. — made the controversial decision last week to welcome back students after spring break, as the virus was spreading rapidly across the U.S.
While no Covid-19 cases were reported in the city at the time, the Virginia Department of Health now says there are four confirmed cases in Lynchburg. Testing continues to be limited across the state.
Falwell’s welcome-back order earned pushback from Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, who ordered schools to be closed for the rest of the academic year.
“I would suggest Mr. Falwell look to the actions of the leaders of Virginia’s flagship universities for how to set a strong example in this health crisis,” he said at a press briefing days after the school reopened its doors.
Northam also quoted scripture in an attempt to sway Falwell.
“As we are told in First Corinthians, it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful,” he said.
Liberty said about 1,900 students returned to residence halls last week, but that number was lowered to 1,045 as of Monday morning. The school said all activities were complying with Northam’s directives during the virus outbreak, including limiting contact and keeping gatherings to less than 10 people.
The Times article points to one parent of Liberty students, Jeff Brittain of Chesapeake, Va. He tweeted out his concern for his three sons who returned to the school last week, calling the reopening “crazy, irresponsible.”
Brittain later tweeted he was taking his kids home from the school and noted how the campus looked “like a ghost town.”
According to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker, the U.S. has the most confirmed Covid-19 cases in the world – over 144,000, as of Monday morning, with more than 2,500 deaths. Virginia’s Department of Health says there are just over 1,000 cases in the state.
Anthony Fauci, an immunologist who has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, told reporters over the weekend the U.S. could see as many as 200,000 deaths from the virus. President Donald Trump later said keeping deaths to 100,000 would mean he did “a very good job” handling the outbreak.