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Out of the Lab, Into the Public

A temporary research lab shutdown leads one researcher to find an innovative new way to help a community in need.

Antonio Dávila Jr., PHD, never spent much time around patients, even though they were at the heart of everything he did.

As lab manager and senior research investigator for the Penn Acute Research Collaboration (PARC), Dávila helps Penn physicians conduct clinical research on ER patients. He’s involved in designing experiments, training research technicians, performing tests—keeping everything at the lab running smoothly.

When he’s not there or teaching chemistry to Penn Nursing students, Dávila is conducting his own research. He studies mitochondria in the immune cells of trauma patients, figuring out how those cells make energy after a trauma. And generally, that was as close as he ever came to working with patients: their cells.

But then COVID-19 swept in and turned Dávila’s work life upside down. Now he finds himself making weekly trips to a parking lot in Kensington—the center of Philly’s overdose crisis. In partnership with two organizations and the city’s Department of Health, he works with a team of volunteer nurses to lead a COVID-19 testing site there on Tuesdays. Many of the people who come are experiencing homelessness, battling opioid use disorder, or both. Dávila offers them free nasal swab tests (which he then analyzes in his lab) and antibody tests (on behalf of a Penn microbiologist’s research) while also collecting valuable public-health data.

How did he get here? It’s a question Dávila asks himself often these days. “It’s been quite a ride for me because this is not what I do,” he says. “I don’t work with infectious agents. I am not a public health person. I’m not a clinician. I’m not a homeless advocate—but here I am doing all of this. My whole life kind of changed, actually. It’s been a very, very, very stressful summer for me. But I feel like this is important work, and I’m proud of it.”

It started in mid-March, when the PARC lab temporarily shut down along with other “nonessential on-campus research activities” at Penn. Soon ER physician Benjamin Abella, PARC’s clinical director, helped launch a research trial to investigate hydroxychloroquine as a potential COVID-19 treatment and prevention. Dávila began making tests that the study’s team could use.

From there, the question became, “We have this tool, now what else can we do with it?” Dávila remembers. Abella suggested they use Dávila’s test to help more people. Dávila proposed focusing on the city’s underserved Latino immigrant community.

He also saw an opportunity to gather elusive data while providing those tests. “We know that Black and brown people are disproportionately affected by [COVID-19], but nobody really had any data as to why that might be the case,” he says. So he developed a survey to determine how closely each respondent can actually adhere to the recommended guidelines: Are they social distancing and wearing masks? Can they work from home? Stay off public transportation? Are their workplaces following the rules, too? If they’re found to be COVID-positive, can they maintain a quarantine?

“My hypothesis is that the members of these communities cannot readily follow these guidelines for a lot of reasons,” Dávila says. “Because of that, they’re experiencing higher infection rates. There’s really a need that the city is not filling. They have general guidelines, but they need to think of [tailored approaches] for this specific population.”

He was preparing to launch a testing site at Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit that serves South Philadelphia’s Latino immigrant population, but then the City of Philadelphia opened its own site there instead. Dávila pivoted to Kensington, where he’s been testing between 30 to 35 people every week. He plans to test 500 people total over the coming months, including at a soon-to-open second site in nearby Hunting Park. He’s partnering with a clinic there that supports many Latino immigrants.

Early on in this new work, Dávila reached out to Damaris Chaidez, an undergraduate student in the School of Nursing who took his class her freshman year and who, like Dávila, is Mexican-American. He knew that she’s passionate about Latino public health. Now Chaidez has been researching for several months from her home in southern California, where she’s been since Penn shut down.

“We know that Black and brown people are disproportionately affected by [COVID-19], but nobody really had any data as to why that might be the case.”

It’s Chaidez’s job to track the ever-evolving data around Philly’s COVID cases and spread, as well as pulling information on the city’s general population and its Latino immigrant communities. She says her findings have underscored health disparities that existed long before COVID. “Many Latinx and Black Americans are the essential workers, so it makes sense that they’re more likely to get the coronavirus,” she says. “These populations are also more likely to have pre-existing health conditions,” she adds, which are associated with worse outcomes in COVID patients.

In mid-July, as PARC began returning to some of its usual research activities on top of its new COVID projects, and as Dávila helped devise courses for Penn Nursing’s work with a new school in Vietnam and prepared to teach a summer class at Penn, he was feeling a bit overwhelmed. But he was still making time for his new public-health work, too. “I’m committed to seeing this project through to publication,” he says.

While his days were once focused solely on lab experiments and cells, “really, I now see the people,” he says. “For a long time, I’ve avoided pairing the number on the sample vial with an actual person. I’m very glad that I’ve opened myself up to meeting and talking with so many different people.”

“I guess that’s the hashtag for 2020,” he adds. “Pivot.”


Story by Molly Petrilla