Background Severe cases of coronavirus disease MESHD 2019 (COVID-19) rapidly develop acute respiratory distress HP leading to respiratory failure HP, with high short-term mortality rates. At present, there is no reliable risk stratification tool for non-severe COVID-19 patients at admission. We aimed to construct an effective model for early identifying cases at high risk of progression to severe COVID-19. Methods SARS-CoV-2 infected patients from one center in Wuhan city and two centers in Guangzhou city, China were included retrospectively. All patients with non-severe COVID-19 during hospitalization were followed for more than 15 days after admission. Patients who deteriorated to severe or critical COVID-19 and patients who kept non-severe state were assigned to the severe and non-severe group, respectively. We compared the demographic, clinical, and laboratory data between severe and non-severe group. Based on baseline data, least absolute shrinkage and selection operator (LASSO) algorithm and logistic regression model were used to construct a nomogram for risk prediction in the train cohort. The predictive accuracy and discriminative ability of nomogram were evaluated by area under the curve (AUC) and calibration curve. Decision curve analysis (DCA) and clinical impact curve analysis (CICA) were conducted to evaluate the clinical applicability of our nomogram. Findings The train cohort consisted of 189 patients, while the two independent validation cohorts consisted of 165 and 18 patients. Among all cases, 72 (19.35%) patients developed severe COVID-19 and 107 (28.76%) patients had one of the following basic disease MESHD, including hypertension MESHD hypertension HP, diabetes, coronary heart disease MESHD, chronic respiratory disease MESHD, tuberculosis MESHD disease MESHD. We found one demographic and six serological indicators ( age TRANS, serum SERO lactate dehydrogenase, C-reactive protein, the coefficient of variation of red blood SERO cell distribution width (RDW), blood SERO urea nitrogen, albumin, direct bilirubin) are associated with severe COVID-19. Based on these features, we generated the nomogram, which has remarkably high diagnostic accuracy in distinguishing individuals who exacerbated to severe COVID-19 from non-severe COVID-19 (AUC 0.912 [95% CI 0.846-0.978]) in the train cohort with a sensitivity SERO of 85.71 % and specificity of 87.58% ; 0.853 [0.790-0.916] in validation cohort with a sensitivity SERO of 77.5 % and specificity of 78.4%. The calibration curve for probability of severe COVID-19 showed optimal agreement between prediction by nomogram and actual observation. DCA and CICA further indicated that our nomogram conferred significantly high clinical net benefit. Interpretation Our nomogram could help clinicians to early identify patients who will exacerbate to severe COVID-19. And this risk stratification tool will enable better centralized management and early treatment of severe patients, and optimal use of medical resources via patient prioritization and thus significantly reduce mortality rates. The RDW plays an important role in predicting severe COVID-19, implying that the role of RBC in severe disease MESHD is underestimated.