In a call with constituents, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) said a debunked conspiracy theory was 'absolutely right.'
During the town hall, a constituent asked Tillis if the more than 200,000 deaths reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might be "skewed." Tillis responded that the caller was "absolutely right" and made "a great point."
"In fact, we understand that 95% of the deaths were comorbidities," Tillis said. "Sounds like you're studied in this, so you know what that means. But for the other people in the telephone town hall: Comorbidity means that that person had some other underlying health condition."
Tillis went on: "So you're absolutely right. We're not at a granular level yet. They're using conservative numbers to encourage people to use social distancing and try and end the spread of the virus. But I think when the final accounting is done you are going to see, sadly, that the number of people who died may have died from an underlying condition at the same time that they had COVID."
Tillis' comments echo a debunked conspiracy theory tied to the right-wing QAnon movement. The group claims that a small fraction of COVID-19 deaths are solely the result of the illness, misrepresenting a CDC study that found that other risk factors are often present in patients who have died from the virus.
But many of those other contributing factors are caused by the coronavirus itself, and experts say the actual U.S. death toll is likely substantially higher than reported.
A Tillis spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier on in the pandemic, Tillis defended the safety measures and stay-at-home orders instated by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who is a Democrat.
"We need to let people know that now is not the time to let their guard down," Tillis said on a conference call in April, adding that some states were rushing to reopen "a little bit too soon."
"People need to wear a mask, they need to avoid going out if they don’t need to," Tillis said at the time. "That’s the only way that we are ultimately going to beat this virus and get our economy back on sound footing."
And in June, Tillis broke with Trump's anti-mask stance, telling constituents that there was "no scientific basis" for rebuffing face coverings.
"I don't mean anybody any offense out there who thinks they shouldn't wear a mask, but I hope you're tested daily, I hope you're an epidemiologist, I hope you're a scientist, because only with that experience can you possibly think that it's safe to go out without a mask," Tillis said.
In a tele-town hall last month, Tillis acknowledged the 163,000 deaths claimed by the virus at that point, and said that "those who are refusing to follow social distancing" will have to "own responsibility" for the death toll.
"I don't mean to offend anybody on this call, but it's just logic says that if you're gonna let this virus do exactly what it wants you to do, go out in public and spread, you're on the COVID team, and we want you on the American team fighting this virus," Tillis said in the August call.
But just days later, Tillis had to apologize after he was spotted at the crowded Republican National Convention without a face mask.
Polls show Tillis is facing an uphill battle for reelection in November. According to RealClear Politics' polling average, Tillis trails Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham by 5.2%.
No major poll has shown Tillis ahead in the race since June.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.