One week after evangelical Christian leader Jerry Falwell Jr. ordered students to return to the campus of Liberty University, where he is president, about a dozen students at the school have fallen ill with symptoms that appear similar to those exhibited by patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Falwell, an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, has frequently echoed the president in dismissing the severity of the disease, and the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic.
According to a New York Times report, eight of the students with the symptoms have been ordered to self-isolate, while three more have been taken to local hospitals near the Liberty University campus in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell told NYT that the school would notify the community of the cases as "deemed appropriate and required by law."
During January and February and into the early days of March, Trump repeatedly downplayed and minimized the threat of the coronavirus outbreak, even claiming on February 26 that the number of cases in the U.S. would soon be "close to zero."
Instead, case numbers in the U.S. are now nearing 140,000 with almost 2,500 deaths, according to numbers compiled by the population data site Worldometers.
Falwell has continually backed Trump's dismissive assessments of the coronavirus, saying that public response to the pandemic has been an "overreaction" by political liberals who seek to damage Trump, according to NYT.
Falwell's order to bring students back to the Lynchburg campus set off anger in the city of about 76,000.
"Remember when people wanted to tar and feather folks? That's about the level it's at in the Lynchburg community right now," one associate told Politico shortly after Falwell announced that Liberty University's campus would remain open despite the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Lynchburg's city manager, Bonnie Svrcek, told Politico that Falwell misled the city's mayor, telling her that he was giving up on his plan to bring students back to the campus following spring break, but went ahead and ordered them to return anyway.
Politico also noted that in a March 10 interview with conservative radio host Todd Starnes, Falwell declared, "we're still opening." On March 25, Falwell claimed that the school "did not reopen," both in a second interview with Starnes, and in an appearance on CNN.
Falwell told Starnes that criticism of the school was politically motivated.
"We're conservative, we're Christian, and therefore we're being attacked," he said in the March 25 interview.
Michael Gillette, a former Lynchburg mayor who is also a bioethicist, told NYT that Falwell's claim that he was being attacked for political reasons was "unfounded and unreasonable," saying that Falwell simply "did not take this threat as seriously as others have."