Hundreds of members of a Tucson bridge-players group have been notified that a man tested positive for the new coronavirus after participating in a local tournament in early March.
Pima County health officials had little information on Wednesday about the positive test, nor could they confirm was among the county’s five known cases of COVID-19.
Another person who attended the tournament, a 79-year-old woman, died of pneumonia less than a week after the event ended, according to several people who knew her, but it is unclear whether her death was caused by the virus.
More than 800 people attended the American Contract Bridge League regional tournament in Tucson from March 2-8.
At least some competitors traveled to the Tucson tournament from Colorado, where the state’s first death from the virus was a woman in her 80s who had attended a bridge tournament in Colorado Springs from Feb. 29 to March 1.
Doug Couchman, a 53-year-old professional bridge player and tutor, said he was tested Friday and notified on Monday that he was positive for the new coronavirus. The tournament notified all the members who attended the Tucson event this week and Couchman posted about his test in a forum on the popular Bridge Winners website.
The 79-year-old woman who attended the ACBL regional tournament in Tucson died Friday from pneumonia, according to several people who attended the tournament. Before her death, the woman told a friend that she had been tested for coronavirus. If she was tested, those results were unclear Wednesday.
Reached by The Arizona Republic early Wednesday, the Pima County Health Department appeared unaware of any exposure involving a bridge tournament in Tucson.
Couchman said he sought a test when he began having symptoms on March 11, after playing at another club, called the Adobe Bridge Club. That club also sent an email to its players informing them of the coronavirus case.
Couchman said when he began feeling ill he immediately left his house and checked into a hotel because his father has cancer and is immunocompromised. His family has been dropping off meals at his hotel room door ever since.
“In the course of four hours, I’d gone from just the first signs of being sick to ‘oh my God, do I feel terrible,'” he said. “So it was really very quick.”
He had a cough the first day, then came recurring bouts of fever and body aches. The defining characteristic, he said, was “it just hurt everywhere.”
He said he was able to secure a coronavirus test from LabCorp with help from a family member who is a doctor. He said he was told the doctor and lab notified Pima County about the positive test. Pattie Kushner, LabCorp’s chief communications officer, said she couldn’t speak to individual cases but said the company follows all federal and state rules for reporting COVID-19 results.
Dr. Bob England, interim director of the Pima County Health Department, said he was unsure why the Health Department had not contacted Couchman but added that he is unable to talk about any particular patient because of privacy laws. He said county officials typically contact doctors before they speak to patients, so it is possible there was a delay between the county speaking with a doctor and contacting a patient.
England requested that The Republic have Couchman call the Health Department to talk about his test, which Couchman later did. Couchman said the county epidemiologist he talked to seemed “appropriately concerned and interested” when he spoke with him on Wednesday.
Couchman does not appear to be included in the Pima County’s statistics on positive coronavirus tests, which stood at five confirmed cases on Wednesday, based on the county’s description of those cases.
Aaron Pacheco, spokesman for the Pima County Health Department, couldn’t provide any more details on Wednesday afternoon about why the case doesn’t seem to appear in the county’s numbers, saying only that the number of cases is updated every morning at 9 a.m.
Couchman said friends have called asking why he doesn’t show up in Pima County’s numbers.
“I don’t know to what extent they are tracking,” Couchman said before he contacted the health department. “But if they are tracking, they aren’t doing a very good job because no one has contacted me.”
Couchman said he doesn’t think the county and the state’s numbers are correct and he wants public health officials to be more honest about what they do and don’t know.
“They know the individual numbers are wrong,” he said. “They are at best behind. I’m not saying they’re actively suppressing anything. They’re probably overwhelmed or don’t know do.”
He said more people should be tested if tests are available. “I would like for whatever tests there are and start making them available, not just to people who are well-connected, that have the right doctor, but to everyone,” he said.
And health authorities should stop telling people that the risks in Arizona are low, he said.
“Tell people the truth, which is that that community transmission is occurring in Arizona, in Pima County, in Tucson,” he said. “We don’t know how much. It is foolish to assume that the risk is minimal.”
Sharing his private health information publicly has been a strange experience, he said. Initially, he said, he was worried people would blame him for exposing them to the virus.
“It’s been very strange for me because … this is my intimate private health information,” Couchman said. “I felt like I need to get the word out, I had to share my private health information with now it’s thousands of people. And so maybe I did some good by doing that.”
Couchman said he wanted to come forward because bridge players are a vulnerable population because many of them are elderly. After he posted about his illness on Bridge Winners, bridge tournament organizers started canceling events, he said.
“The median age of duplicate bridge players is well over 70,” Couchman said. “So any bridge club anywhere in the country … half the people are going to be vulnerable.”
Steve Reynolds, tournament chairman for the American Contract Bridge League tournament in Tucson, said the bridge community has been supportive of Couchman since he went public. He said there were 360 people at the tournament on March 8 and about 800 attended the seven-day tournament. Attendees were from Phoenix, Tucson and all over the country.
“Doug is a total hero for being transparent,” Reynolds said.
Republic reporter Stephanie Innes contributed to this article.
Contact reporter Rob O’Dell at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @robodellaz.