The number of Knox Co. residents fighting COVID-19 in the hospital dropped to its lowest level since October, even as reported deaths reached a grim milestone: 500.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — At Knoxville’s City County building, 500 white flags now dot the lawn.

And every flag comes with a story — and a name of someone COVID-19 took too soon. 

One of those names: Christopher John Ross Willett, age 25.

“He was so smart,” his mother Diana recalls. “His favorite thing was to make people laugh.” 

He died of the coronavirus late last year. 

“He walked in the emergency room door on Monday and he was dead on Friday,” Diana Willett said. 

Her son worked at a grocery store in Powell. He was on the autism spectrum and she said probably drove managers crazy asking for a full-time position, which he desperately wanted. 

Diana Willett said he took all the COVID-19 precautions, but not everyone at the store followed suit.  

“He’d say ‘why don’t people wear their masks?’ And I’d say ‘What do you mean, honey?’ And he’d say ‘Don’t they care about people? How can they not care?'” she recalled.  

She thinks he got sick at the store late last year. A cough that wouldn’t quit sent him to the emergency room in December. 

“He said, ‘I don’t want to die, Mom.’ I couldn’t tell him he wouldn’t,” she recalled. “But the last thing I said to him before he walked in was, ‘Maybe they can fix your cough and you can come home.'” 

The otherwise-healthy twenty-five year-old died five days later. 

“It’s not fair. He didn’t ask for this,” Diana Willett said. 

Four hundred and ninety-nine other families in Knox County didn’t ask for this either. But even as spring brings hope of falling hospitalization numbers and rising vaccine distribution, Willett shares the same warning as health leaders: Don’t stop now. 

“My family is never going to be the same because somebody out there decided they didn’t need to wear a mask to go to the grocery store,” she said. 

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