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New York Times misleads public about extent of COVID-19 symptoms among Liberty University students

The New York Times published a false and misleading story on March 29 claiming that Liberty University “students started getting sick” after students returned to campus from spring break.  The Times attributed this erroneous conclusion about 12 students with symptoms to a local doctor who has consulted with Liberty.  The truth is a far different story.  Both the numbers and the sequencing are wrong.

Dr. Thomas Eppes, who was quoted in the Times’ story, denies he ever told the reporter that Liberty had about a dozen students were sick with symptoms that suggest COVID-19.  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.  Many news organizations are now following the Times’ lead.

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

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, much less any residence hall students having sufficient symptoms of COVID-19 prompting the need to get tested based on current CDC guidelines.

The University promptly provided the reporter detailed numbers on the student cases and requested corrections.  A minor addition to the story was made but the overall false impression is left.  So the University is offering the facts in this statement.

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 agreed to this self-quarantine and two opted to return to their permanent residences.  There were three students in close contact with these individuals and they were also asked to self-quarantine in separate rooms in the annex, which 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 seven.  The health professionals did not recommend these asymptomatic students be tested and they were not.  The revised story falsely suggests the motives for self-quarantine as based on exhibited symptoms.

Liberty is also aware of one off-campus student who was running a fever and had a cough after returning from a county out-of-state with a high number of reported cases.  He was tested and advised to self-isolate pending the results.  He elected to return to his permanent residence after testing 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 additional online classes and who lives off campus with his family. He remained in Lynchburg during spring break. He was advised to self-isolate based on his reported symptoms while his test results were being processed. Despite his status as a graduate, he consulted the campus clinic to see the doctors he had been seeing while a residential student. This online student was not impacted by the University’s decision to allow residential students to return to their rooms.
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, in fact, 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 promotes 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 erroneous news stories and opinion articles.

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 Liberty 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 at the start of the week and is now down to about 1,045 with additional checkouts this week.

Saturday, March 28, was 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 required to self-quarantine 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 record low approval ratings for news media and earns the label “fake news.”

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