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Coronavirus exposure possible during huge bridge tournament in Tucson

Coronavirus exposure possible during huge bridge tournament in Tucson

Doug Couchman outside a hotel room in the Tucson area on March 18, 2020. Couchman was sick and tested positive for COVID-19. He's healthy now.

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Hundreds of bridge players who attended a tournament in Tucson March 2 to March 8 may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

One Tucson attendee who got sick after the tournament was able to get tested because his brother is a doctor. The test came back positive for Covid-19 Monday night.

Bridge clubs in Tucson have shut down play as a result of the disclosure by Doug Couchman, the player who was able to get tested. Others have gotten ill since the tournament but have not been able to be tested, he said.

Couchman, who moved to Tucson in August from California, is a semi-professional bridge player. He started showing symptoms March 11, three days after the end of the tournament held at the Tucson Expo Center, on East Irvington Road and South Alvernon Way.

"That’s all I did that whole week. I’m a professional bridge player. People had come from at least a dozen states, from all over," Couchman says.

Among the places players came from was Colorado Springs, where a bridge player in her 80s died Friday after contracting the virus. She had played in a bridge tournament Feb. 29-March 1, where she may have contracted the virus and exposed others, the Denver Post reported.

Then players from that community came to Tucson for the regional tournament here.

The total number of attendees during the week of tournament play was likely more than 800, said Barry Abrahams, president of the Adobe Bridge Center in Tucson. 

Not all players were necessarily exposed to each other, as some came and went during the week, said tournament chair Steve Reynolds. Also, the expo center is a large space, so those not playing together were not necessarily in close contact.

Nevertheless, playing bridge is "absolutely" a viable way to pass the virus around, said UA virologist and professor Felicia Goodrum Sterling.

"You’re sitting at the table — it's like you're eating dinner together. Plus you’re passing cards around," she said.

The virus could easily stay alive on playing cards, she said.

The average age of a bridge player is over 70, which is a vulnerable age for anyone who gets Covid-19.

Couchman, 53, may have contracted the virus late in the tournament, given that the symptoms hit him three days after it ended.

"That tournament ended on Sunday," he said. "Wednesday afternoon, I started coming down with symptoms. It began with a cough, then became fever, aches, chills, a little bit of GI (gastrointestinal) distress, but mostly just feeling bad."

"It came on suddenly. Who knows how long I had been shedding viruses."

Couchman left home because he has an immunocompromised family member and checked into a hotel. He got a negative test for flu but was told at an urgent care that he was unlikely to qualify to receive a test at an emergency room.

On Friday, Couchman's brother, Dr. Jeff Couchman, used a nasal swab to test him and sent it off to Quest Diagnostics strictly for a Covid-19 test, not for other viruses.

By Saturday evening, Doug Couchman was symptom-free, though he has remained out of his home.

The lab returned results Monday evening, confirming a positive result, Jeff Couchman said. The doctor contacted Pima County Tuesday to inform them, he said. Doug Couchman informed the bridge community, which promptly shut down.

It's unclear whether Couchman's case has been counted yet in the state or county records. The state is receiving daily reports from the laboratories of Covid-19 test results. But the brothers think Doug Couchman's experience shows the number of cases is likely severely under-counted, and the level of transmission is not "minimal" as the state health department says.

"Several of my friends who were at the tournament have gotten sick, but they don’t know if they have it because they can’t get tested. Many have self-isolated themselves."

Pima County lists just five confirmed cases, and the state lists a total of 27, with 102 pending tests and 265 total tests. No details have been provided about the fifth case — added to the statewide website for the Arizona Department of Health Services Wednesday morning — to match it to Couchman.

Pima County health director Bob England said the department is no longer doing contact-tracing — notifying the people who may have been exposed to someone with Covid-19 — because it has become too labor intensive for the department to handle.

The Tucson Expo Center has since closed and cleaned the entire space. However, an employee said the center had not been notified of the exposures at the bridge tournament.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or ​520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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