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Source work, reporting, exclusive data modeling put AP ahead on omicron immunity

Customers eat at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, after Philadelphia city officials lifted the city’s vaccine mandate for indoor establishments that serve food and drink, but an indoor mask mandate remained in place. AP has reported exclusively that data modeling shows 73% of the country is believed to be protected from omicron and that future spikes will likely require much less — if any — dramatic disruption in the U.S. (AP Photo / Matt Rourke)

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For two years, as COVID-19 ravaged the world, AP health and science reporter Carla Johnson stayed in constant contact with disease modelers, effectively embedding herself with the scientific prophets who were using careful analysis to predict what the coronavirus would do next.

Her stories foretold the world in which we’ve lived since, memorably and sometimes depressingly, like one she pitched in the fall of 2020 that became “Thanksgiving by Zoom.”

This time her subject was the omicron wave. The fast-moving omicron variant caused less severe disease on average, but it seemed like a tsunami sweeping through populations around the world. But in late January, the forecasters saw the wave cresting in England and many wondered if the wave would crest in the United States as well.

At the peak of the omicron surge more than 800,000 Americans a day were getting infected with COVID-19 and countless more cases went undetected because of asymptomatic spread. In addition,millions more were fully vaccinated and boosted or had a combination of vaccination and natural immunity through past infection.

Buried in those numbers was the answer to one of the most vexing questions at this stage of the pandemic: How much immunity had Americans developed from the omicron variant?

Seattle-based Johnson set out to answer the question,leaning on her deep sourcing among COVID modelers. But she took it a step further by asking one of the sources — leader of an influential model at the University of Washington — to produce some projections for the AP.

Johnson talked to other modelers as well,including those in Virginia who have produced similar calculations, and she went beyond the academic and scientific communities to get the perspective of average people.

The result was a key finding that gave the country the earliest and clearest sense yet of how the U.S. is navigating the pandemic: 73% of the country is believed to be protected from omicron. The story began with a simple but powerful lead: “The omicron wave that assaulted the United States this winter also bolstered its defenses, leaving enough protection against the coronavirus that future spikes will likely require much less — if any — dramatic disruption to society.”

That straightforward approach carried through the deeply reported story as Johnson explained,in ways a layperson can understand, why much of the country may now be protected.

The story made headlines,with AP widely credited for its exclusive work,including prominent play on MSNBC among other outlets.

For recognizing that the data might hold answers on COVID immunity,and resourceful source work that delivered a unique projection of future infection, Johnson is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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