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Daily Briefing: What to know about XBB.1.5


The newest COVID-19 variant to spread across the U.S. is about five times more contagious than an earlier omicron variant. Also in the news: Crowds of mourners filled St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican Thursday for Benedict XVI’s funeral and the suspect in the killing of four University of Idaho students has been brought back to Idaho.

🙋♀️ I’m Nicole Fallert, Daily Briefing author. Here are 18 New Year’s gift ideas to get 2023 started off right.

Here are Thursday’s headlines.

XBB.1.5 cases adding up 

The newest COVID-19 variant XBB.1.5 doesn’t appear to cause more serious disease than its predecessors, experts say. But the strain appears to be about five times more contagious than an earlier omicron variant, which was five times more contagious than the original virus, infectious disease experts told USA TODAY.

What to know: We may not be going back to the days of 2020, but experts say the new variant is spreading fast, accounting for more than 40% of cases in the United States as of Dec. 30. 

Pope Francis honors Benedict XVI at rare requiem Mass

Pope Francis honored his predecessor Benedict XVI, the German theologian who made history by retiring. Francis presided over a rare requiem Mass Thursday of a dead pontiff by a living one before thousands of mourners in St. Peter’s Square. Bells tolled and the faithful applauded as pallbearers carried Benedict’s cypress coffin out of the fog-shrouded St. Peter’s Basilica and rested it before the altar. Heads of state and royalty, clergy from around the world and thousands of regular people flocked to the ceremony, despite Benedict’s requests for simplicity and official efforts to keep the first funeral for an pope emeritus in modern times low-key. Read more 

👉 Missed it? Click here to watch our livestream of the funeral.

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What happens after McCarthy loses multiple speaker votes?

The second day of the 118th Congress ended with still no speaker. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy failed to secure enough votes to become speaker of the House on six ballots over both days, heightening tumult around the new GOP majority. McCarthy won the closed-door vote leadership election, and by wide margins, after facing challenger Rep. Andy Biggs, the Republican of Arizona and a member of the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus. The votes on Tuesday and Wednesday, which included all members of the House and not just the Republican party, have yet to put McCarthy – or anyone else – over the vote threshold to win the speakership. Here’s how the speaker vote could play out in a few ways.

‘Rivers in the sky’ soak California’s bay area

Another major storm began pummeling the California coast on Wednesday as forecasters warned of massive amounts of rain and snow, as well as the possibility of even more storms. The storm is termed a “bomb cyclone” because it is expected to be marked by a quick drop in atmospheric pressure resulting in a high-intensity storm. The powerful storm whipped up huge waves and high winds and included an atmospheric river anticipated to cause flooding and landslides in Central and Northern California. Sometimes called “rivers in the sky,” atmospheric rivers are a major factor in extreme rain and snowfall in the West. Read more

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Suspect in Idaho killings extradited 

Little is known about why authorities suspect Bryan Kohberger in the Nov. 13 murders at an off-campus rental home, other than that they analyzed DNA evidence at the crime scene and were able to match it to him, law enforcement officials told the Associated Press and other media. Kohberger, the suspect in the fatal stabbings of four University of Idaho students, was extradited and landed in Idaho Wednesday evening, potentially allowing the release of more information in the mysterious case. Officials have said they would not release information or documents pertaining to Kohberger until he was returned to Moscow to formally face charges in the deaths of Ethan Chapin, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, Kaylee Goncalves, 21, and Xana Kernodle, 20. Read more

📷 Photo of the day: New York Film Critics Circle Awards 2023 📷

The New York Film Critics Circle Awards kept the spirit of cinema alive on Jan. 4, shining a spotlight on the silver screen stars of the past year. Check out the stars who brought movie magic to the red carpet, starting with actress Keke Palmer, who cradled her baby bump in a sparkling silver dress.

One more thing

Nicole Fallert is a newsletter writer at USA TODAY, sign up for the email here. Want to send Nicole a note? Shoot her an email at or follow along with her musings on Twitter. Support journalism like this – subscribe to USA TODAY here.

Associated Press contributed reporting.