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Longtime Richmond resident Michael Johnson fills out paperwork at the temporary office of attorney John Burris after a press conference in Richmond, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, to announce a lawsuit on behalf of victims of the Aug. 6 Chevron refinery fire. Johnson suffers from chronic breathing problems and all four of his children suffer from asthma. The lawsuit charges that "Chevron was grossly negligent in handling an accident that, with proper safety measures and a timely response, could have been avoided," according to a statement issued by John Burris. (Laura A. Oda/Staff)

RICHMOND -- The smoke from Chevron's Aug. 6 fire has long since dissipated, but residents continue to seek treatment in hospitals, though the pace is slowing.

More than 14,600 people had been to hospitals for treatment as of Wednesday, said Randy Sawyer, director of Contra Costa County's hazardous materials program. That number was a jump of more than 5,000 since Aug. 13.

Sawyer said about 1,000 new patients per day showed up complaining of discomforts from Aug. 13 to Aug. 16. The total rose from 12,680 on Aug. 17 to 14,000 by Monday.

Sawyer added, "The rate of hospital visits has slowed, and we expect it to slow to nothing pretty soon."

Meanwhile, the region's clean air agency announced it found slightly elevated levels of soot particles in the air two miles away from the Richmond refinery in a 24-hour period after the fire was mostly out.

Pollution officials acknowledge that their network of monitors can fail to capture local soot from a refinery fire because the smoke can drift beyond the reach of the monitors.

While hospitals cite patient-confidentiality laws in declining to disclose the severity or veracity of most patients' claims, visits have continued to grow since claim centers opened and area attorneys announced lawsuits. All the while, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Richmond and Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo garnered rave reviews from residents and health experts for handling the bulk of patients.


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Most patients complain of respiratory and eye discomfort.

Of the 14,600, at least three have been admitted and hospitalized -- two at Children's Hospital Oakland and one at Kaiser, county health officials said.

Wesley Ellis, a Richmond senior, said he was hospitalized at Doctors Medical Center for two days after the fire.

"My glands swelled up, and I couldn't breathe. It was horrible," Ellis said.

Days after the fire, Chevron opened a claims center and established a 24-hour hotline, taking thousands of claims in the first few days. The company has vowed to process all claims within 30 days.

On Aug. 16, Oakland-based attorney John Burris joined two San Francisco firms in suing Chevron on behalf of nine residents, including three children. Burris has since said that he has been contacted by more than 1,000 people and that a class-action suit against the energy giant may be likely.

As to the severity of the symptoms, and why they continue to be reported, Sawyer said, "I haven't talked to the emergency rooms directly, so I don't really know."

About 8,800 of the 14,600 people have been treated at Kaiser.

Chevron has opened a second help and claims center, which will be open until Friday, at North Richmond Community Heritage Senior Apartments in the Community Room, 1555 Fred Jackson Way.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District reported Thursday that it found only slightly elevated concentrations of fine soot particles at the San Pablo monitor from midnight Aug. 6 to midnight Aug. 7 -- after the fire was mostly out. The monitor turns on every six days to monitor fine particles.

Dr. Wendel Brunner, the county public health director, said the results do not suggest people weren't affected by the smoke. Weather conditions that night pushed the smoke high in the atmosphere, he noted.

Staff writer Denis Cuff contributed to this report. Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.