Liberty students in Italy have been brought back to the US due to coronavirus concerns

Students participating in Rome with a Purpose, a study abroad program, were on their way to a weekend trip to Abruzzo, a region east of Rome, when Larry Peck, leader of the program, got a call Saturday Feb. 29, asking that the nine Liberty students make immediate plans to leave Italy. 

The Center for Disease Control had named Italy a Level 3, avoid nonessential travel, health notice due to the spread of coronavirus days before Liberty University withdrew its students studying abroad in Rome. Since their departure, the U.S. State Department gave a Level 4 warning, no travel advised for the Lombardy and Veneto regions in northern Italy.

LU Send representatives were instructed by Liberty’s Office of Health and Wellness to bring the students home, forcing them into a 14-day quarantine upon arrival to the U.S.

Keith Anderson, executive director of the Student Health and Wellness Center, said they were monitoring where their students were abroad, desiring to keep them safe and supported. 

“Once the State Department threw their rating scales to a Level three (in Italy), it became a decision of let’s pull our students for their own safety since there is a travel advisory,” Anderson said. “We want to ensure that they still have a pathway to get their education, completing their coursework after bringing them
back home.”

Other universities involved with the Christian study abroad program were Lee University and Cairn University. Currently, Rome has seen a small amount of coronavirus cases, while regions in northern Italy have seen the number of cases rise to more than 5,800 as of Saturday March 7, according to the World Health Organization. 

They also report that deaths from the virus rose from 36 to 233 in Italy alone in the last two weeks. Italian officials have now cut off travel to northern regions, the New York Times reports, to help eliminate the spread of the virus throughout the rest of the country.

Anderson said the decision to pull the students came from their main concern to ensure the safety of Liberty students no matter where they are. After monitoring the situation reports from the CDC and the World Health Organization concerning the coronavirus, they passed along that information to various Liberty departments, allowing them to make the best decision for students’ safety. 

“Our students who study abroad are still our students,” Anderson said. “We are concerned and ensuring they have the proper information to make the best decision, but then we also provide that same information for our institution to make that decision for our students.”

Austin Gaebe, a senior double-majoring in history and journalism, spent months preparing for his spring semester abroad in the Rome with a Purpose program only to have his time cut down to six weeks in Italy. Gaebe said the day before hearing the news was just a normal day in Rome, then the next day, Saturday, he was making plans to return home. 

“When it happened, not all of us were totally shocked, it is just disappointing, and for us being in Rome, the coronavirus had not hit as hard as it has in northern Italy,” Gaebe said. “It was kind of hard for us to understand why the university was making this decision, maybe just an overreaction at first, but in the coming days we saw that Italy had a 50% increase in the two days after we were told to leave.”

Provided Image from the CDC
COVO-19 — The Center for Disease Control released an official image of what the strand of coronavirus disease looks like.

Because the major threat of the virus was centralized in northern Italy, Gaebe said he and the other students were not as concerned for their safety.

“We had been discussing a few days before that if Liberty were to do anything, but it wasn’t like a plausible thing, just (something that) could potentially happen if the situation gets worse in the north of Italy,” Gaebe said. 

Gaebe made travel arrangements that Saturday afternoon to fly home Monday. After arriving in the U.S., Gaebe went into immediate self-quarantine, staying in his aunt’s lake house in southern Virginia. 

Gaebe said since he lives with his 80-year-old grandmother, he did not want to risk passing along any virus to her and the rest of his family, although he said he has not seen any symptoms of coronavirus. 

“I feel fine and normal, and I am not worried about my own health because even if I do get it, I am healthy enough and younger, so I’ll be okay. I just don’t want to pass anything along to my family,” he said. 

Lydia Wiechart, a Liberty nursing student, was also studying abroad in the Rome with a Purpose program when she was called back to the U.S.

“It was very abrupt to just think that we were in Rome studying abroad then have to leave just two days later,” Wiechart said. “All of the Liberty students who are going through the same thing have been able to support each other as we try to adjust to this change.”

As all the students were sent home, many of them according to Wiechart were concerned how they would fulfill the class credits they planned to complete in Rome. However, Gaebe said the professors in Rome have started to post lectures online so all the students could attempt to continue their studies from the U.S. Refunds for the housing money spent for the entire semester have yet to be discussed. 

With Liberty’s spring break scheduled for March 16-20, many students have plans to travel internationally through their academic departments. Anderson said they don’t have a large check list to cut students trips, but they are going to continue the trips as scheduled, making critical decisions as necessary. 

“If there were any upcoming trips to (high-risk level) places, then we would send the information on to all of our campus partners and let them know that ….according to the CDC and State Department, these are their recommendations,” Anderson said. 

Other universities such as Virginia Tech have issues warning about spring break trips that go through level three areas.

Liberty students who attended the 2020 CPAC convention were alerted Saturday, March 7, that an attendee of the annual event had a confirmed positive case of the coronavirus. The mass email stated the person tested is located in a New Jersey hospital and remains under professional care in quarantine. 

Anderson said Liberty’s current population is not the most susceptible for fatality, noting the CDC’s current statistics that fatality rate for people under the age of 40 is less than 0.2%; those 80 years and older it jumps to 14%. 

“I would suggest that people do not panic but trust health professionals, taking in the social hygiene and health hygiene practices,” Anderson said. “And if you do the things that you were to do to prevent the flu then that will be the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

Local Impact

Along with collegiate institutions, businesses are also taking preventative actions due to the increasing risk of the spread of the coronavirus. Genworth Financial group has offices located around the country including Lynchburg, employing around 1,000 local people. The business closed its doors Thursday and Friday, implementing a work-from-home mandate while they scrub all of their offices nationwide, public relations spokeswoman Julie Westermann confirmed. 

“We had a required work-from-home mandate to test our company’s ability to maintain our operations in case the public health officials at some point ask businesses in our communities to close for a period of time,” Westermann said. 

Troutman is the news editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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