Surveillance of the severe acute respiratory illness (SARI) in Brazil aims to characterize the circulation of the Influenza A and B viruses in hospitalized cases and deaths, having been expanded in 2012 to include other respiratory viruses. COVID-19 was detected in Brazil for the time in the 9th epidemiological week of 2020, and the test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus was included in the surveillance protocol starting in the 12th epidemiological week. This study's objective was to investigate the pattern of hospitalizations for SARI in Brazil since the entry of SARS-CoV-2, comparing the temporal and age profiles and laboratory results to the years 2010 through 2019. In 2020, hospitalizations for SARI, compiled from the date of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 up to the 12th week, exceeded the numbers observed during the same period in each of the previous 10 years. The age bracket over 60 years was the most heavily affected, at higher than historical levels. There was a considerable increase in negative laboratory tests, suggesting circulation of a different virus from those already present in the panel. We concluded that the increase in hospitalizations for SARI, the lack of specific information on the etiological agent, and the predominance of cases among the elderly during the same period in which there was an increase in the number of new cases of COVID-19 are all consistent with the hypothesis that severe cases of COVID-19 are already being detected by SARI surveillance, placing an overload on the health system. The inclusion of testing for SARS-CoV-2 in the SARI surveillance protocol and the test's effective nationwide deployment are extremely important for monitoring the evolution of severe COVID-19 cases in Brazil.