WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 16: Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) asks a question during a Judiciary Committee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 16, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., on Thursday told a virtual town hall audience that he believed the 200,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. had been inflated in order to “encourage people to use social distancing.”

“When the final accounting is done,” the actual COVID-19 death count will be lower, Tillis claimed.

The response echoes a false conspiracy theory pushed by adherents of the baseless QAnon movement: that public health officials are allegedly lying to the public about the true death count because of ulterior or possibly sinister motives. Only 6% of the reported deaths are attributable solely to COVID-19, conspiracy theorists claim. 

Tillis also embraced an extreme anti-vaccine position and appeared to welcome herd immunity as part of a strategy to get 60% of the country immune. (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said last month that a herd immunity strategy would lead to an “enormous” death rate that would be “totally unacceptable.”)

The Republican incumbent told the caller that she was “absolutely right” in saying “the CDC has made clear” that deaths related to COVID-19 cover “things like heart attacks, and slip-and-falls and things like that” when people “have COVID in their system.” The caller told Tillis she wanted “a more definitive, clear number.”

“How many people has COVID actually killed?” the caller asked. “Because I think the numbers are skewed, and as citizens, we’re having a hard time of getting a real grasp of what that number actually is.”

“You are absolutely right,” Tillis replied. “I want to make sure I get a chance to answer your question, but you’re making a very, very important point.”

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He continued:

In fact, we understand that 95% of the deaths were comorbidities. 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.

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.

Now the question is — and what will be difficult to prove out is — but for COVID, would they have had that heart attack? The complication with diabetes? Would their COPD have been enough to have caused the death except for the additional strain on their body from having COVID? 

And so there’s no question that when all this is done — and we’re not managing a crisis — the same people right now that are just trying to figure out how to end the spread of the virus are going to have to go back into that data so that we can tease through it and learn from it. Now, I know you have a question. But I thought you made a great point, and I wanted to expound on it.

The caller went on to ask her intended question, which was about her concerns over the government implementing a vaccine mandate.

“I don’t want the government telling me that I have to vaccinate my child — for anything, honestly — for whatever effect. Because, as a parent, it is my job before God, honestly, to make sure my children are healthy,” she said. “I’m not a fan of this vaccine — or any vaccine being mandated.”

“You ought to save your phone call for somebody who thinks a mandate would be good,” Tillis responded. “I don’t think you’ll see a mandate, number one. And number two, you’re absolutely right.”

Tillis repeated that vaccine decisions should be left to parents before appearing to embrace herd immunity.

“I for one hope that 60% of the country either develops an immune response after having gotten COVID or having the vaccine, because once we’ve gotten up to 60% this will be a manageable illness in the United States,” he said. (Scientists estimate that a little more than 2% of the U.S. population has acquired the virus, at the cost of more than 200,000 lives.)

The caller sounded like a “great mom,” Tillis concluded.

The comorbidity theory reflects a viral QAnon meme, which misrepresents a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that COVID-19 was the sole factor in only 6% of reported U.S. deaths from the coronavirus.

The theory concludes incorrectly that only 6% of those reported deaths should count, a claim which has been repeatedly debunked by medical professionals. If anything, the true number of deaths related to COVID-19 is likely undercounted, according to experts. Victims with at least one other contributing factor, such as pneumonia — itself often brought about by the virus — are still part of the total number of deaths.

Tillis’ Republican colleague Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa also drew fire for making similar remarks during a campaign Q&A earlier this month, which fell on the same week in which the White House coronavirus task force notified her state it had become the nation’s leading hotspot.

“I heard the same thing on the news, you know, traveling across the state today — that they’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19,” Ernst said.

“Now, no doubt that there are deaths, and it complicates with those that have other illnesses, certainly, but those are just attributable to COVID-19,” she said. “I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”

Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, called Ernst’s remarks “JAW DROPPING” in a series of tweets.

“Senator Ernst is from Iowa, where currently is having one of the WORST #COVID19 OUTBREAKS hotspot in the entire nation as a region, and some say maybe the world,” Feigl-Ding said. “To deny that is to deny the suffering of Iowans.”

President Donald Trump retweeted a tweet pushing the false theory from a QAnon follower named “Mel Q” earlier this week. Twitter removed the tweet for violating its rules against spreading misinformation about the pandemic.

Salon first reported that in another virtual town hall in July, Tillis, long a proponent of responsible masking, had blamed a surge of the virus in North Carolina on the Latinx community for not wearing face coverings.

“And I will tell you, I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a statistician, but one of the concerns that we’ve had more recently is that the Hispanic population now constitutes about 44% of the cases — the positive cases,” the Republican senator said. “And we do have concerns that, in the Hispanic population, we’ve seen less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask.”

Last month, Tillis apologized for not wearing a mask at the Republican National Convention after he had posted a picture of himself with one on at the beginning of the night.

“I fell short of my own standard,” he said.

Salon has reached out to Tillis’ re-election campaign for comment.

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