The first case of COVID-19 was detected in Brazil on 25 February 2020. We report and contextualize epidemiological, demographic and clinical findings for COVID-19 cases during the first 3 months of the epidemic. By 31 May 2020, 514,200 COVID-19 cases, including 29,314 deaths, had been reported in 75.3% (4,196 of 5,570) of municipalities across all five administrative regions of Brazil. The R0 value for Brazil was estimated at 3.1 (95% Bayesian credible interval = 2.4–5.5), with a higher median but overlapping credible intervals compared with some other seriously affected countries. A positive association between higher per-capita income and COVID-19 diagnosis was identified. Furthermore, the severe acute respiratory infection cases with unknown aetiology were associated with lower per-capita income. Co-circulation of six respiratory viruses was detected but at very low levels. These findings provide a comprehensive description of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic in Brazil and may help to guide subsequent measures to control virus transmission.