Hundreds of bridge players who attended a tournament in Tucson earlier this month may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.
One Tucson attendee who got sick after the March 2-8 tournament was able to get tested because his brother is a physician. 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 sick 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 tournament ended at the Tucson Expo Center on East Irvington Road at 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 said.
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. Other players from that community came to Tucson for the regional tournament.
More than 800 players attended the Tucson Winter Regional. Not all players were necessarily exposed to one another, 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 University of Arizona 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 a family member with a compromised immune system, and he checked into a hotel. He got a negative test for flu but was told at an urgent-care center that he was unlikely to qualify to receive a coronavirus 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 officials 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 direct from the laboratories of their COVID-19 test results.
But the brothers said Doug Couchman’s experience shows the number of cases is likely severely undercounted, and the level of transmission is not “minimal,” as the state Health Department says.
Pima County’s website also minimizes the risk, saying, “The current risk for exposure to COVID-19 in Pima County remains low.”
“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,” Doug Couchman said. “Many have self-isolated themselves.”
As of Wednesday, Pima County listed five confirmed cases, and the state lists a total of 27, with 102 pending tests and 265 total tests in state labs.
Pima County health director Dr. 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 as the virus has spread.
Jeff Couchman, who is a pediatrician, has had to stop practicing since the positive result came back. Because he is a physician, the state said it would test him, but could not free anybody up to come by. So Couchman ended up jabbing the swab up his own nose to get a sample — an unpleasant experience — and now he is awaiting lab-testing results, though he is feeling pretty normal.
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 until contacted by the Star.
Star reporter Patty Machelor contributed to this report.
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