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SC prisons agency builds its own contact tracing app to keep coronavirus out

Overwhelmed with the new task of tracking coronavirus among its prison staff, the S.C. Department of Corrections streamlined its process by building a new application that automates much of the work. Officials say inmates are safer as a result. 

When the pandemic began, corrections staff were using paper documents to record staff's health. They needed to keep track of whether staff were showing symptoms, whether they had traveled to a hotspot, whether they had been tested and more. 

The method quickly proved itself outdated and time-consuming. So, the corrections agency's next step was to build a spreadsheet where results could be recorded. In mid-May, it took the strategy a step further and went live with a special app that consolidates all of the information its health staff needs to do their jobs. 

Employees can use the app to input corrections officers' information when they call to ask key questions. Then, if some need to stay home, their badge will not allow them entry into the prisons.

One day in late May, it showed 87 staff members were staying at home to be monitored. 

"We're looking out for the people who are working for us," state prisons director Bryan Stirling said.

Corrections is sharing the numbers in its application with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Users have to sign a disclosure statement in order to use it. 

DHEC scaled up its contact tracing workforce this spring; the agency now says it has thousands of tracers available to help investigate every COVID-19 case. 

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On Tuesday, Stirling told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that 91 of 17,500 inmates statewide have tested positive for the coronavirus. His department has tested 304 inmates in all. It has also restricted visitation and kept non-essential staff and volunteers out of its facilities, which are being cleaned every two hours.

Other states have seen far worse outbreaks inside their prisons. Tennessee's case count was approaching 3,000 on Friday, the worst rate in the country.

Nearly 500 prisoners around the country have died of the disease, according to the criminal justice-focused Marshall Project.

PIPE-ing up

A newly announced $80 million cash infusion into local software firm Benefitfocus Inc. is the first for a Texas private equity firm that's looking to sink capital into publicly traded companies.

The source of the funding was BuildGroup, which is run by Lanham Napier, who happens to be a director of the Daniel Island-based technology company.

In a statement Thursday, he said his Austin-based firm  will be seeking opportunities to take stakes in other public software-as-a-service providers or growth-stage businesses that are seeking to go public.

The approach is known as PIPE, short for "private investment in public equity."

The cash infusion at Benefitfocus follows announcements of cost-cutting and layoffs due to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. It expects a hit of between $50 million and $60 million in revenue because fewer customers will be using its platform. 

BuildGroup's investment gives it the right to appoint a new director to the Charleston company's board.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-607-4312. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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