This study was a retrospective multicentre cohort study of patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) diagnosed at 24 hospitals in Jiangsu province, China as of 15 March 2020. The primary outcome was the occurrence of acute respiratory failure during hospital stay. Of 625 patients, 56 (9%) had respiratory failure. Some selected demographic, epidemiologic, clinical and laboratory features as well as radiologic features at admission and treatment during hospitalisation were significantly different in patients with and without respiratory failure. The multivariate logistic analysis indicated that age (in years) (odds ratio [OR], 1.07; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.03-1.10; P = 0.0002), respiratory rate (breaths/minute) (OR, 1.23; 95% CI: 1.08-1.40; P = 0.0020), lymphocyte count (109/l) (OR, 0.18; 95% CI: 0.05-0.69; P = 0.0157) and pulmonary opacity score (per 5%) (OR, 1.38; 95% CI: 1.19-1.61; P < 0.0001) at admission were associated with the occurrence of respiratory failure. Older age, increased respiratory rate, decreased lymphocyte count and greater pulmonary opacity score at admission were independent risk factors of respiratory failure in patients with COVID-19. Patients having these risk factors need to be intensively managed during hospitalisation.